14 Feb 2019

Complex chemicals: The trouble with detecting synthetic drugs

From Nine To Noon, 9:38 am on 14 February 2019

Illegal synthetic drug laboratories are getting more clever when it comes to complying with legislation but continuing supply, a forensic toxicologist says.

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The Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced in 2013 and aimed at regulating synthetic drugs industry. It was also amended a year later. 

The legislation also means that to legally sell synthetic cannabis, a product has to pass a testing regime and be sold with a licence.

However, concerns were raised that the Act may actually push the black market even further, with zero licences being granted for an approved product so far.

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research senior forensic toxicologist, Diana Kappatos, told Nine to Noon that the changing nature of the industry was a challenge worldwide and not just for New Zealand, but their team was working on keeping a tab on what was being imported.

"We work in partnership with customs at our borders. So we are analysing seizures which range from a small amount of powder in an envelope to large seizures, coming across airports or the mail centre, so we also analyse seizures police have for prosecutions. We have a good idea of what's happening across the country."

Demand for stronger drugs was driving those supply changes, Ms Kappatos said, and this was particularly true for synthetic cannabinoids.

"They're called new psychoactive drugs of which synthetic cannabinoids are one group of these types of drugs."

"[Illegal laboratories] know what part of the molecule is the active part, which has an effect on the mind. They just change the rest of the structure of the chemical so it no longer complies to the legislation, so in that point in time they're not an illegal drug. 

"Then they come on to the world market and some are more effective than others, so when they are actually causing harm in a certain country then the legislation will later on be amended to make it a controlled drug."

Ms Kappatos said the morphing of chemical structures of drugs was why they were always able to be ahead.

"The way that legislation is written it's very specific for the chemical structure themselves, I'm not an expert on psychoactive drugs but worldwide it is not easy to change the drug regulations and this is why they're constantly one step ahead of legislation."

The institute is now hoping to treat patients hospitalised because of drug use more effectively with a new testing programme.

They've asked DHBs to send them blood and urine tests of patients suspected of having taken psychoactive substances.

So far, it's been reported that more than 40 deaths in New Zealand have been linked to synthetic cannabis.

Ms Kappatos said synthetic cannabinoids were causing the greatest harm in the country at the moment.

"From mid-July 2017 onwards there has been an influx of two main synthetic cannaboids known as AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB, causing a lot of harm in New Zealand.

"We're still seeing them but not as much as they were in the beginning. We're seeing different synthetic cannabinoids also coming into the country, but the two key ones are the 5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA ."

Those two drugs were reclassified as Class A drugs late last year by the government.

"It was very interesting because when that information hit the media, the importation through our border - the pattern changed. For a little while, we didn't see a significant number of synthetic cannabinoids coming into the country and then the type coming changed for two and three months and then we went back," Ms Kappatos said.

She said it was important that the public, including drug users and those around them, were well aware of the risks.

"We're trying to develop in New Zealand a drugs early warning system, where we can immediately inform the appropriate people of harm of any new synthetic drug coming into the market.

"These effects from synthetic cannabinoids can be very rapid and profound. In terms of the AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB, what happens is it's on the cannabis plant, they inhale it and they can lose consciousness in a matter of seconds. 

"They can be unconscious for 20 or 30 minutes and because this happens regularly, their friends or people around them, relatives, may tend to leave them and wait for them to regain consciousness. Sometimes, they don't regain consciousness. 

"So our advice to the public is, if you are there with someone who loses consciousness, do not leave them. Watch their breathing, CPR may save a life. That's our advice to users and people are with them."