Forensic specialists have released the findings of a two-year study into synthetic drugs - which has found a significant difference in what exact substance is killing Kiwi users in different parts of the country.

And it has identified new types of synthetics on the market.

Crown research institute ESR carried out a two-year project tracking synthetic drugs in New Zealand and found a "clear geographical difference" in substance use.

ESR aims to keep local communities safe and healthy through intelligent science.

The synthetics project started in July 2017.

Synthetic drugs seized by police. Photo / NZ Police
Synthetic drugs seized by police. Photo / NZ Police

It established that there were range of new psychoactive substances - commonly known as synthetic drugs - in the local drug market.

It also tracked clear regional differences in the substances being used.

ESR's forensic toxicology manager Dr Mary Jane McCarthy explained that the research showed one drug - AMB-FUBINACA - was detected in the bulk of the drug-related fatalities referred to the coroner's office in the north of New Zealand.

"Conversely, fatalities linked to synthetic cannabinoids in the central and southern parts of the country were spread among a range of different substances," she said.

"Over the two years of the project we detected synthetic cannabinoids in 90 deaths referred to Coroner that may be linked to use of these drugs.

"Of those cases, more than 80 per cent were linked to AMB-FUBINACA, recently reclassified with Class A drug status."

Synthetic drugs were originally developed to be a legal alternative to cannabis.

However, on May 8, 2014, following nationwide protests against the drug, it became illegal to sell or use psychoactive substances in New Zealand.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall. Photo / Michael Craig
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall. Photo / Michael Craig

In August this year the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill passed its final reading - giving police discretion to take a health-centred approach, rather than prosecuting those in possession of class A drugs.

It also classifies the main substances of synthetic drugs - AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB - as Class A drugs and enabled temporary drug class orders to be issued for emerging substances.

Dr McCarthy said the research detected a range of synthetic drugs during the two-year survey, with different patterns of use potentially the result of the illicit drug supply chain.

The data gathered was the result of working closely with New Zealand Police, Customs and the Ministry of Health.

"Our data was used to inform and assist health and enforcement agencies to tackle the harm being caused by these dangerous drugs," McCarthy said.

ESR's surveillance of synthetic drugs is part of a worldwide response to the synthetic substance crisis.

The agency also contributes to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and receives regular updates on new substances coming into the market.

Three ESR staff have recently returned from a forensic toxicology conference in the UK, where recent trends in the constantly changing synthetic substances market were being observed and shared.

"Being able to share our data within New Zealand and internationally is helping us predict, prevent and protect New Zealand communities," said McCarthy.

Earlier this week Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall revealed that at least 75 people across New Zealand had died after taking synthetic drugs since June 2017.


Of those, 24 people had died as a direct result of synthetic drug toxicity.

Kahu James Harawira. Photo / supplied
Kahu James Harawira. Photo / supplied

In the remaining cases synthetics are provisionally attributed as the cause of death.

In those cases a final cause of death was yet to be ruled by coroners.

One of those on the tragic list is Kahu James Harawira, who died in June 2017.

He was found dead behind a building in Henderson, soon after his stepmother Stephanie saw him scoring synthetic drugs from a local dealer.

"I think it is always going to increase the moment [synthetics] were allowed into the nation," she said.

"Seventy-five deaths - that's horrid, and that's only the ones that have passed away.

"What about all the people who are hooked on this stuff ... and their families?

"It's so addictive and so destructive ... synthetics are just killing, and they will keep killing."