While some types of synthetic drugs have not been legal in New Zealand for a number of years, these drugs continue to destroy lives, tear communities apart and kill users. Reporter Jean Bell takes a look at the impact of these synthetic highs in our community as Chief Coroner's latest statistics reveal how many people have lost their lives to synthetic drugs.
A homeless charity co-founder is calling for more education around the dangers of synthetic drugs as the latest statistics detail how many people nationwide lost their lives to the substances.
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall said in a written statement yesterday there were between 70 and 75 deaths attributable to synthetic cannabis toxicity since June 1, 2017 across the country.
Marshall said 24 cases were confirmed and around 50 cases provisionally appeared to be attributable as synthetic cannabis toxicity-related deaths.
"There are also a number of deaths where while synthetic cannabis contributed to the death, synthetic cannabis toxicity was not the ultimate cause of death."
Rotorua homeless charity Love Soup's co-founder Elmer Peiffer said synthetic drugs left people in a "catatonic state".
"They [users] are literal zombies. You are very vulnerable when you're using."
He said recent events had deterred people from using, such as the death of Rotorua man Corey-James Brown.
"People are beginning to get wiser. [Brown's] death was an eye opener for many people. They saw that and don't want it for themselves."
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Pieffer said "education, education, education" was vital to addressing the issue and supported community-led initiatives, starting in high school, to help spread awareness.
He believed users felt comfortable knowing what was in their drugs but he said it was impossible to know.
"They need to be shown a break down of what's in there. If you took samples from 10 different baggies you'd find a whole lot of different stuff."
Rotorua Coroner Wallace Bain said the biggest problem with synthetic cannabis was that people had no idea what they were putting in their bodies.
"With this synthetic cannabis you have no idea what it is. You did have when it was legal a little bit because there was some control but now you don't have anything," Bain said.
"Now they are putting all sorts of toxins, poisons, weed killers in it ... I heard one doctor talking and it alarmed me because he said one inhalation of it is enough to stop the heart.
"They [drug users] will try it because it's free or next to free and it's different and bang you are dead, you've got no control over it."
Inspector Clifford Paxton and Inspector Brendon Keenan, area commanders for Western Bay of Plenty and Rotorua (acting), said in a joint written statement that synthetic drugs were dangerous and caused significant harm to users and the wider community.
They said the police's focus was to hold dealers and manufacturers to account.
"These people prey on those struggling with addiction and are motivated by financial greed."
The police were also looking to help people affected by synthetic drug use by referring them to help services and urged people to contact their local GP or other help services.
Lakes District Health Board clinical director of emergency and medical management, Dr Peter Freeman, said the synthetic cannabis presentations at the emergency department tended to vary and he believed it was related to supply.
"We can go several weeks without anyone coming in and then there might be a bit of a rush on. It's not a case of one-to-two regularly but we might see five on a weekend," Freeman said.
"Often these patients are very agitated as they come to, so we have security staff to watch them, and then generally after several hours of recovery the patient gets up and leaves the ED."
He said there were a range of services, primarily based in the community, available in both Rotorua and Taupō.
Rotorua services included Te Utuhina Manaakitanga, REAL and Lifewise.
St John district operations manager for central east, Jeremy Gooders, said the service continued to respond to synthetic drug-related incidents.
He said the issue was a significant concern.
"The combination of chemicals can result in the sudden death of even young and previously well people," Gooders said.
The Ministry of Health was approached but did not provide comment before publication.
Synthetic drugs advice
- Families and friends of synthetic drug users are urged to help by contacting a local GP or contacting the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797.
- If you suspect someone has taken synthetic drugs, call 111 immediately and seek medical assistance for them.
- People can also contact their local police station or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 to report information to Police on those involved in the manufacture and sale of these drugs.
Source: New Zealand Police