Scientists are reporting an "explosion" of new psychoactive substances coming into New Zealand. In a just-published study, researchers described more than 130 new substances that were referred to ESR's border screening laboratory between 2014 and 2018. And between 2009 and 2016, more than 730 new drugs were reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - a rate of one a week. Science reporter Jamie Morton asked ESR senior scientist Cameron Johnson about the practical challenges of trying to stay on top of this ever-evolving problem.

What do we know about the world of psychoactive substances in New Zealand? Designer drugs have been in our society a long time, but how has this changed in the past decade? Where are these drugs coming from – and does the situation appear to be getting worse?

The new psychoactive substances (NPS) as we know them today have been around for the last decade.

The real beginning in New Zealand was around 2008 with the party pills and herbals highs that were sold at dairies, petrol stations and supplement stores, and contained piperazines, like BZP.

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Since then, there has been a cat and mouse game of legislating against new drugs, which rapidly lose favour, and are replaced by a similar but slightly altered version.

There have been more than 800 different NPS reported globally in the last decade, in all type of categories, synthetic cannabinoids, amphetamine-type substances, hallucinogens and opiates to name a few.

They have evolved so rapidly that there is not a lot known about most of the newest NPS, for example the potency, toxicity, how they react in the body or with other substances, which poses a real risk to the user.

The growth of the NPS market has appeared to have slowed somewhat compared to the past few years, although we are still seeing new previously unknown drugs appearing all the time.

This might be partly due to enforcement efforts, but also the awareness of users and the public as to how dangerous these drugs are, for example the media attention and education on the harm that synthetic cannabis caused mid-2017.

With such a diverse array of NPS, this also creates challenges in identifying them.

So when did we start trying to do this?

ESR has extensive drug testing capabilities, from the border screening laboratory to the Drug Chemistry and Clandestine Laboratory teams, and the toxicological testing carried out in Wellington.

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This research programme is aimed at linking up the capabilities within ESR, so that when we identify something at the border, we are prepared for the eventuality that it will be detected again during ESR testing.

The jointly operated Customs – ESR Screening Laboratory began in 2014 with the aim of providing a rapid testing service at the border.

This has identified many NPS, over 130, often with the assistance of equipment and expertise at University of Auckland.

Once new drugs are identified at the border, all of the testing capabilities at ESR are updated to ensure that we are well prepared for detecting them again in the variety of forms that might appear to us, from Police and Customs seizures, to toxicological testing.

What kind of technology and approaches are you using?

ESR has a variety of testing capabilities for the different forms the drugs may appear in, from drug seizures to biological samples taken from users, whether that be criminal or coronial work, or impaired drivers, for example.

ESR senior scientist Cameron Johnson analyses substances at ESR's labs in Wellington. Photo / Supplied
ESR senior scientist Cameron Johnson analyses substances at ESR's labs in Wellington. Photo / Supplied

Often, there are challenges in identifying these novel substances, and in many instances the University of Auckland has helped in this identification process.

Why is it such a challenge for scientists to keep on top of these drugs?

The way that identification generally occurs is the results obtained from testing are compared to reference materials, or commercial libraries or databases, or published literature.

NPS evolve rapidly, with a constant stream of new previously unknown drugs appearing.

This means there are often no reference materials or published results available that we can compare our testing with.

For those NPS, the University of Auckland has sophisticated instruments that can essentially break a drug down into individual components and piece it back together to get an idea of what chemical structure it has, a little bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Once we identify a new drug, we can update all of the drug testing capabilities within ESR.

There is also a lot of information sharing between agencies, including ESR, Customs, Police, National Drug Intelligence Bureau and Ministry of Health, to ensure we are all aware of the latest drug trends.

Which of these drugs are the most worrying? I know scientists, police and clinicians have had big worries about the synthetic cannabinoid AMB-FUBINACA, which is reported to be 75 more powerful than the THC in cannabis plants.

The end user will be getting a powder or a bag of plant material or some type of tablet.

There is no indication from appearances as to what is actually contained in it, or the concentration.

There may also be variation within and between batches of NPS.

This variation, along with the unknown effects that might be caused by the NPS, combine to create a potentially very risky drug. As we saw in mid-2017 with synthetic cannabinoids and "synthetic cannabis", there was tremendous harm caused from using these drugs, including AMB-FUBINACA.

Two bags of AMB-FUBINACA - reported to be 75 times more powerful than the THC in cannabis plants - that were intercepted by police in Auckland in 2017. Photo / File
Two bags of AMB-FUBINACA - reported to be 75 times more powerful than the THC in cannabis plants - that were intercepted by police in Auckland in 2017. Photo / File

We've recently seen the advent of testing at city wastewater stations for illicit substances. How might this be useful?

With any type of testing, knowledge is very important so that we can be prepared and able to respond appropriately and effectively to any challenges that might arise.

Knowing what kind of drugs are in the community, and what might be changing in the drug scene, can help not only for testing agencies like ESR, but also in educating users and the public in the potential harm that might be caused in our communities.

Are there any other innovations or technology on the horizon that might offer a step-change for the control and surveillance of illegal drugs?

Again, information is crucial, so quicker more timely results are helpful in identifying new trends.

Many instruments will encounter the same issues - no reference material - so this type of research project is very important in identifying NPS so that we can build our own reference libraries and keep ahead of the latest trends.