Following more than 50 deaths in New Zealand now associated with synthetic cannabinoid use, ESR is offering a unique service to all DHBs in the country.

The ESR Unidentified Substances in Emergency Departments (USED) programme provides extended drug testing on urine and blood samples for patients harmed by recreational drug use

Funded by ESR and supported by the Ministry of Health, the testing programme enables emergency departments to send samples to ESR’s toxicology laboratory, which can carry out much more specialised testing than individual DHBs.

ESR’s Senior Forensic Toxicologist, Diana Kappatos, says there is a presumption the recreational chemical agents causing toxicity cannot be detected and there is no point in testing.

“In fact, they can be discovered and then warnings can be made about agents causing harm. However, this level of testing can’t be done in DHB laboratories as they have very limited access to the highly specialised equipment that we have at ESR,” Ms Kappatos says.

The USED programme also enables a uniform approach to the laboratory investigation of what are complex samples.

Ms Kappatos says ESR is part of a worldwide forensic laboratory service, receiving regular updates on unique novel psychoactive substances.

“This means that even if on our initial testing the substance is unknown it may be later identified as we receive new information,” she says.

Adding significantly to the country’s overall drug early warning programme, the information also allows for the collation of a national picture by collecting data not just about the number of drugs circulating but also the harm being caused.

“One of the current problems with the synthetic cannabinoid crisis is that individual numbers are small in each centre, but collectively represent a significant level of harm that was unrecognised.

“Also there continues to be too many emergency department presentations of serious adverse events such as seizures, collapse and cardiac events, where there is no confirmed toxicology so the cause is completely presumptive,” she says.

“In many cases the only confirmed toxicology is when there has been a death.”

Individual DHBs need to enrol in the programme to ensure the correct handling and management of a send-away test.

0800 ESR MEDIA (0800 377 633) or


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Gael Woods