Provisional figures from the Coroner have today shown that dozens of people have died because of synthetic cannabis use since June last year.
In the previous five years, two deaths were linked to synthetic cannabis use but, during the past year, that number was believed to be between 40 and 45 people, according to the Coroner's provisional figures.
Today, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) said its scientists were developing a platform for a national drug monitoring and surveillance system to tackle the wave of evolving synthetic drugs coming into the country.
Alongside other agencies and affected organisations, it aimed to create a drug early warning system.
The ESR scientists began collaborating with police and the Coroner last year in response to a suspected link between synthetic drugs and a cluster of deaths around the country.
ESR spokeswoman Mary Jane McCarthy said since then, that joint work had helped ESR to promptly identify the novel psycho-active drugs coming into New Zealand, as well as enabling greater sharing of information among ESR, the Police, the Coroner, NZ Customs and the Ministry of Health.
"We were trying to determine whether there was a causal link, given the known and reported deaths and other incidents involving the emergence of new psycho-active drugs on the market."
McCarthy said the detection of synthetic cannabinoids was complex because of the continual emergence of new varieties.
"There is often little or no published data available detailing the toxicity, the potency and risks from the use of the latest compounds.
"While there was an awareness, from an early stage, of the identity of the synthetic cannabinoid involved, AMB-FUBINACA, there was no international literature linking it with death."
A significant turning point came last May, after the first death in New Zealand, with the discovery that much, but not all, of the plant material found associated with incidents and patients arriving at emergency departments had very high concentrations of synthetic cannabinoids.
"Police were very quick to react by investigating the source of the plant material laced with synthetic cannabinoids, disrupting supplies and making arrests," McCarthy said.
"ESR's work with Customs, in monitoring the incidents of synthetic cannabinoids intercepts at the border, showed there was an immediate and significant decline of importation of synthetic cannabinoids throughout last September and October."
ESR has also been involved in a range of projects aimed at reducing harm.
One has been to work with emergency departments to help them recognise when they are dealing with a synthetic cannabinoid and not another drug.
ESR scientists also worked closely with a Porirua Task Force, collaborating with Police and a wide range of social agencies, responding to the sale, supply and consumption of synthetic drugs within the district.
Further funding has been invested by ESR into research to develop an early warning system that would provide timely information to help agencies intervene to protect the public.
Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown said the Coroner's report released this morning showed there had been between 40 and 45 deaths in the past year as a result of the synthetic drugs which he called a "serious blight on our society".
"We cannot stand idly by as more people die and families are hurt when we can do something about it," he said.
"St John Ambulance receives around 30 callouts a week related to synthetic drug use, as batches are becoming increasingly potent and dangerous, and are doing more harm to New Zealanders."
Brown's proposed Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill would increase the maximum jail sentence for selling or supplying synthetic drugs from two years to eight.
"My Bill will put the dealers of these substances on notice and ensure our justice system has the tools to more appropriately deal with the people who clearly don't care about the harm they're causing," Brown said.
What are synthetic drugs?
• Smokable products containing varieties of plant matter that have been infused with synthetic cannabinomimetic or other often-toxic substances.
• They were intended to be a legal alternative to cannabis, but are now banned.
• Synthetic drugs have been linked to an increased risk of seizures.
• Effects include, but are not limited to: decreased motor co-ordination, fast or irregular heartbeat, disassociation, dizziness, paranoia, psychosis.
• Use of synthetic drugs in New Zealand has also been linked to renal failure and heart failure.
Where to get help
• If you, or someone you know, is using synthetic drugs, police urge you to stop immediately and seek help if needed by contacting your local GP or by ringing the Alcohol and Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or text 8681 seven days a week to speak to a trained counsellor.
• If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.