By ALISON HORWOOD
Fantasy-type drugs have become so popular that at least one distributor has received threats from traditional drug merchants to keep off their turf.
The National Drug Intelligence Bureau says it is impossible to determine how big the black market in designer drugs has become, but insiders say it is worth several million dollars in Auckland alone.
Drugs such as those linked to the death last weekend of Auckland University student Shawn Brenner can be obtained in bulk through the internet from places such as the United States, Indonesia and India, bought locally through distributors, and are apparently being manufactured in laboratories around the country.
Users told the Weekend Herald that the drugs' increasing popularity was because they cost a fraction of the price of speed or Ecstasy, many were legal, they were widely available and did not have a depressive "comedown"effect that could last for days.
The distributors claim many are chemicals found naturally in the body and can enhance health, increase quality sleep, prevent male hair loss and keep skin young.
Some users said they had stopped using drugs such as methamphetamine in favour of GHB (gamma-hydroxy-butyrate), associated products such as Fantasy, Empathy, Liquid G, and a form of One4B which is sold as a compact disc cleaner.
As a result, one distributor the Herald spoke to said he had received a "be careful" warning from a gang producing methamphetamine.
"Of course it's of huge concern," said Detective Sergeant Tony Quayle, of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau.
"Any drug people can die from is a worry. We don't know how big this problem is.
"Like any black market, it is extremely difficult to quantify."
He said the drugs came to the bureau's attention when distributors tried to promote them at the New Year's party the Gathering.
Its organisers would not let them be sold, but later they were sold as One4B sachets at the Big Day Out.
Detective Sergeant Quayle said he met one Auckland distributor this week to seek assurances he would not push the products beyond the present client base.
In a city the size of Auckland - where the drugs are most wide-spread - there "could be hundreds of people" distributing, said the detective.
James McNee, one of the only importers and distributors of "legal highs" to come out publicly, describes business as booming and says he hopes to make a million and retire in a few years.
His company, Alphaware, turns over up to $30,000 a month.
Mr McNee works from the bedroom of his Timaru flat, with a support staff of three plus four distributors.
The 27-year-old former wool buyer imports about 20 feel-good products, exporting many again and selling the rest within New Zealand at a profit.
One of his biggest-selling products is the Fantasy-type drug once sold as One4B but now disguised as the CD cleaner Puritech.
He imports the concentrated One4B (or 1,4-butanediol, an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of other organic chemicals which apparently makes users feel good by increasing the body's dopamine production and blocking it from leaving), dilutes it in a laboratory with eight to 10 parts water, and resells it for $165 retail for a one-litre bottle. Distributors buy it at special wholesale rates.
"Some people do buy it as CD cleaner, but our regular client base knows what's in it," said Mr McNee.
As Detective Sergeant Quayle puts it: "No one in their right mind would pay $160 for a bottle of cleaner. They would use soap and water to clean their CDs like the rest of us."
The product is legal, but distributors agreed to "take it off the market" for human consumption pending a Health Ministry investigation and further classification.
The police are pushing for all GHB-type products to be outlawed under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Mr McNee, and his Auckland-based distributor, Mark Barlow, say their products are safe when people keep to the recommended dose. Many, such as Puritech are sold in conjunction with educational information, instructions and a measuring vessel.
Overseas data shows that the easiest way to overdose is to mix concentrated and diluted products.
Mr Barlow said that was impossible with Puritech because it was sold only in a diluted form.
One distributor received death threats after the death of Mr Brenner, but Mr McNee said that within an hour of television broadcasting the news of the death, about 20 people had placed orders.
He said Mr Brenner was not using his product, although police will not confirm this.
"It's a cheap and safe alternative to harder, nastier drugs if used properly."
But doctors such as Auckland Hospital intensive care specialist Dr Tony Smith disagree.
He rates it at the top of life-threatening chemicals in relation to admissions to Auckland Hospital.
Mr Brenner, a 22-year-old engineering student and son ofAuckland gynaecologist Dr Bernie Brenner, was the first Fantasy-type linked fatality in New Zealand, although Auckland Hospital treats up to 10 people a weekend for its effects.
Mr Brenner's unconscious girlfriend was also taken to hospital.
She spent six hours on a ventilator before regaining consciousness.
By ALISON HORWOOD