It used to be legal and was readily available in dairies around New Zealand.

Now it has been dubbed the drug that has ruined thousands of Kiwis' lives.

In 2017 the now illegal drug killed 25 people - and is now considered the deadliest illegal drug in New Zealand history.

Synthetic cannabis, better known as the "zombie drug", is being churned out in underground labs and is up to 70 times more potent than naturally-grown cannabis.


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The drug has claimed many lives, including cutting short the life of a promising 17-year-old rugby player from West Auckland.

Speaking to Vice NZ, the 17-year-old's best friend Trey described what it was like to see "little kids" vomiting and having seizures in the middle of the street before the deadly drug claimed his friend's life.

He said seeing his friend die and himself coming close to death shocked him into getting clean.

"I used to smoke an ounce of synthetics in two days. I was real bad, I'm surprised I'm still alive," he said.

"I've been off it for like two years. And when I'm on it, I feel like I'm a different person - I feel like I can't control my own body. And when I'm off it I'm more motivated, I feel more normal you know.

"I feel like I can do stuff that I actually dreamed of doing when I was on synthetics."

Underground labs churning out synthetic drugs up to 70 times more potent than naturally grown cannabis have 'destroyed' the lives of thousands of New Zealanders. Photo / File
Underground labs churning out synthetic drugs up to 70 times more potent than naturally grown cannabis have 'destroyed' the lives of thousands of New Zealanders. Photo / File

He described the drug as "grappling" and "addictive", saying that his friend was ambitious and outgoing until he fell victim to the synthetics.


Recovering addict Tamarra, who smoked the zombie drug since she was 13, believes the cheap price tag is what has led to many people being hooked on the drug.

The 20-year-old West Aucklander has pinned the blame on the Government for the carnage synthetic cannabis has created on the streets of New Zealand.

"I was 13 when I started synthetics. This s**t was way cheaper than weed and had much more of an effect.

"The Government is to blame. Why bring a drug out and have it legalised so widely, put it in so many shops, put it around the whole entire country, and then get all these people addicted ... and then just take it away and make it illegal?," she told Vice.

"Of course it's going to go underground, and then people are going to start making sh** that is harmful, and that's what's happened."

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West Aucklander Tammara started smoking synthetic cannabinoids when she was 13. See how the highly addictive drug has reached crisis levels in New Zealand: Made with the support of NZ On Air.

Posted by VICE New Zealand on Monday, 19 February 2018

Emergency medicine doctor and toxicologist, Dr Chip Gresham, said the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids had forced a shift in how emergency staff operated.


"Now, we've seen so many seizures from synthetic cannabinoids, that that's one thing we always just consider," he said.

Raquel Barbiellini, a Community Action Youth & Drugs Advisor for Auckland Council, is concerned that the synthetic drug will only increase in popularity on the underground market.

She told Vice that while many young who have tried it have not gone back, its cheap market value could see its use sky rocket.

"There's also a social justice side of it. It's quite easy and cheap to produce it, and when you have a black market when drugs are illegal, and people with access to drugs, there've been these deaths. We know that richer people have access to better drugs – that's the reality.

"And kind of groups have been using it, because its cheaper — it's not the expensive drugs [that are killing people in these numbers]. There is a lot of stigma around using drugs in New Zealand and when you talk about such a marginalised group of people that really the services will need to got to? That's a real justice issue.

"The majority of people who think it's bad and know it's bad are staying away. But it's still in the market, and we think it's going to be increasing in the market."


What are synthetic drugs?

• Smokable products containing varieties of plant matter that have been infused with synthetic cannabinomimetic substances.

• They act in a similar way to cannabinoids naturally found in cannabis such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

• Therefore these products were intended to be a legal alternative to cannabis, but are now banned.

• Synthetic drugs act on the same brain cell receptors as natural marijuana, but are more likely to cause hallucinations and heart problems.

• Synthetic drugs has also 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 cannabis, police urge you 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 7 days a week to speak to a trained counsellor.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.