ESR scientists are developing a platform for a national drug monitoring and surveillance system to tackle the wave of evolving synthetic drugs

 coming into the country.

ESR says its expertise along with input from key agencies and affected organisations can be used to create a drug early warning system.

Scientists began collaborating with the Police and the Coroner last year in response to a suspected link between synthetic drugs and a cluster of deaths around the country.

An ESR spokesperson, Mary Jane McCarthy, says since then, that joint work has helped ESR to promptly identify the novel psycho-active drugs coming into New Zealand, as well as enabling greater sharing of information among ESR, the Police, the Coroner, NZ Customs and the Ministry of Health.

“We were trying to determine whether there was a causal link, given the known and reported deaths and other incidents involving the emergence of new psycho-active drugs on the market.”

Dr McCarthy says the detection of synthetic cannabinoids is complex, because of the continual emergence of new varieties.

“There is often little or no published data available detailing the toxicity, the potency and risks from the use of the latest compounds.

 “While there was an awareness from an early stage of the identity of the synthetic cannabinoid involved, AMB-FUBINACA, there was no international literature linking it with death.”

A significant turning point came last May, after the first death in New Zealand, with the discovery that much, but not all, of the plant material found associated with incidents and patients arriving at emergency departments had very high concentrations of synthetic cannabinoids.

“Police were very quick to react by investigating the source of the plant material laced with synthetic cannabinoids, disrupting supplies and making arrests,” Dr McCarthy says.

ESR and Police also released warnings about the dangers of the use of synthetic cannabinoids, which, combined with a high level of media coverage, had an immediate impact.

“ESR’s work with Customs in monitoring the incidents of synthetic cannabinoids intercepts at the border showed there was an immediate and significant decline of importation of synthetic cannabinoids throughout last September and October.”

ESR has also been involved in a range of projects aimed at reducing harm.

One has been to work with emergency departments to help them recognise when they are dealing with a synthetic cannabinoid and not another drug.

ESR scientists have also worked closely with a Porirua Task Force, collaborating with Police and a wide range of social agencies, responding to the sale, supply and consumption of synthetic drugs within the district.

Further funding has been invested by ESR into research to develop an early warning system that would provide timely information to help agencies intervene to protect the public.


For further information

0800 ESR MEDIA (0800 377 633) or

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Gael Woods