Scientists have offered a fresh snapshot of what drugs Kiwis are taking at summer festivals – with MDMA or ecstasy, sometimes at triple-dose levels, making up two-thirds of those seized.
A just-published survey of more than 300 samples seized by police at the Homegrown, Rhythm & Vines and Electric Avenue festivals over the 2018-19 summer also revealed potentially harmful drug mixtures dubbed Pink Porsche, Red Maple Leaf and Blue Crown.
The ESR-led study comes as the Government has just launched a new website aimed at alerting Kiwis to dangerous drugs circulating around the country.
The confiscated drugs included 30 different types. The bulk of them were either MDMA and cannabis - making up 204 and 44 of them respectively – but the mix also included nine samples of LSD, five of cocaine, and 19 cathinones, a family of psychostimulants better known as bath salts.
Of 20 samples that turned out to be mixtures, the most common was Blue Crown – a combination of MDMA and N-ethylpentylone and sold as blue tablets marked with a distinctive blue crown.
N-ethylpentylone, a type of cathinone, was known to trigger a short-lived high, followed by a long period of over-stimulation that could include a racing heart, high blood pressure, anxiety, overheating and sleeplessness for up to 36 hours.
In large doses, it's been linked to deaths overseas and hospitalisations in New Zealand – and its detection here prompted volunteer group Know Your Stuff NZ to issue an alert.
That MDMA proved the most common drug wasn't surprising to the researchers – and was consistent with findings from festivals overseas.
But lead author Cameron Johnson, an ESR senior scientist, said it was important to keep up to date with drug trends, to help educate potential users and event organisers.
"Knowledge of substances in use - especially new psychoactive substances - may assist in treating users who are experiencing unusual or adverse effects, or in issuing health warnings at such events."
Johnson said the survey suggested users might be misinformed about what they were taking, thinking the substance was MDMA rather than a compound, and amounts of drugs could vary from one dose to the next.
NZ Drug Foundation senior health promotion adviser Anna Tonks said it was worrying to see more evidence of high-dose MDMA among the survey, with some pills weighing more than 120mg.
"This is two to five times the normal dose and can be very, very harmful for someone who doesn't have the right harm reduction information and doesn't know what a normal dose is," she said.
"The fact that synthetic cathinones have popped up again is also highly concerning. N-ethylpentylone has been associated with at least two deaths overseas, has put dozens of Kiwis in hospital, and is often mis-sold as MDMA.
"This is why we would advocate that drug-checking is a really important service, because if people find out it's synthetic cathinone and not MDMA, they might decide to discard it."
The study also found that a portable hand-held device used for rapid on-site testing, called a Raman spectrometer, failed to correctly identify components in nearly half the seized samples.
Johnson and colleagues concluded that a collaboration of on-site testing services and lab-based testing could improve accuracy.
Tonks agreed having access to lab testing would be a "great addition" to festival drug-checking services, like Know Your Stuff NZ – but for that to happen, a law change would be needed.
"For example, volunteers can't hold on to substances to be tested later in laboratories, so there are obviously big legal barriers around harm reduction activities."
The Government recently launched an independent evaluation of festival drug checking services, which polling had suggested three-quarters of Kiwis favoured.
Know Your Stuff managing director Wendy Allison said awareness of her group was clearly growing, with 1300 samples tested last summer, compared with 805 the summer before that, and 445 in 2017-18.
"I think we're making a difference every year – and certainly since last year, when [the issue] became very topical in the media and among politicians, we have been sought more and more outside of people just bringing us substances."
Allison also wasn't surprised by ESR's results. Her group's data from the 2018-19 summer showed the most common substance detected was MDMA, followed by indoles, usually LSD, and dissociatives, usually ketamine.
"We've seen a slight increase in the amount of samples that turn out to be ketamine but it's not a massive spike that would make your grandma faint," she said.
"We have, alongside that, received more enquiries about harms associated with ketamine. So there is perhaps an association there that might point to an increasing trend but it's too early to tell how it will play out."
About 87 per cent of the samples were what people thought they were, and 62 per cent of people said they wouldn't take a substance that wasn't what they expected it to be.
Her group also found seven mixtures of MDMA and N-ethylpentylone. Of those samples that weren't MDMA, more than half contained N-ethylpentylone.
She said the vast majority of people who bought cathinones were under the impression they were MDMA.
When her volunteers discovered the Blue Crown tablets, the group put out an alert that reached about 80,000 people within days.
"To me, this highlights the importance of on-site festival drug checking. The work we do has an immediacy."
Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald, manager of the New Zealand Police's National Drug Intelligence Bureau, said high-strength MDMA, or MDMA cut or blended with other substances, were routinely seen at both the border and in public.
As purity tests on the drugs weren't carried out regularly carried out, it was difficult to tell how available they were across the country.
"Organised criminal groups distribute these substances for strictly profit purposes and have no regard for the wellbeing of the people consuming them," Macdonald said.
"It is important to remember that illicit drugs are generally manufactured and/or imported by people who put profit above all else and do not consider the health and wellbeing of users."
Today, Drug Information and Alert New Zealand also launched a new website, High Alert, which helps people identify drugs and issues alerts.