‘It’s grim. But this is a grim drug’: The synthetic drugs ravaging our most marginalised

A new documentary released by VICE today reveals an underreported public health crisis. Don Rowe talks to assistant producer James Borrowdale about Syn City, an in-depth look at New Zealand’s synthetic cannabinoid epidemic. 

In a shitty flat somewhere in West Auckland, 20-year-old Tammara is getting high. Between her legs is a resin-stained bottle of L&P, a socket cone-piece melted into the cap, packed full of synthetic weed. Her knuckles are tattooed – a diamond, a yin yang, a dollar sign – and in her left hand is a half-smoked roll-your-own.

“I used to mock the other cunts down the road at Henderson,” she says. “Like, oh my God, just smoke the real shit bro you’re gonna fuck up your brain. But this shit was actually way cheaper than weed, and it had much more of an effect.”

“I’ve been smoking it for six years.”

Tammara. Photo: Joe Hockley.

At least 25 New Zealanders are believed to have died last year as a result of smoking synthetics, or synnyz – more than in the previous ten years combined. Syn City, a new documentary by VICE, is about the people left behind.

Ex-user Trey lives with his mum. In his lounge is a shrine of sorts: a bracelet, a porcelain dolphin, a portrait in a home-made frame. His best friend Devontey Pearce died at 17 after smoking synthetics. “He was real good fulla. He was bubbly and humble and he loved doing good.”

Trey nearly died too, found asphyxiating in a bathtub before being rushed to hospital by his mum. “All she said was that I was lucky to be alive.”

Once available in almost every dairy in the country, existing in a grey area as a result of our archaic drug laws, “legal highs” were outlawed when a loophole in the psychoactive substances act was closed in 2014. But the problem, and the consequences, were swept under the rug, not solved.

Highly addicted users were driven underground, and what tiny quality control existed was totally destroyed: the market now is flooded with increasingly potent and complex compounds, cooked in laboratories in China and Hong Kong, and atomised over plant material here in New Zealand, before being sold to our most marginalised.

Doctors are clueless, parents are scared, and, as New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell told me in July, the problem with these drugs is that they get people really fucked up. Just this morning Stuff reported that two children were found last year in a house full of vomit-covered ‘zombies’ in various states of psychosis.

I spoke to VICE journalist and Syn City associate producer James Borrowdale to get his take on a terrifying – and underreported – public health crisis.

What drew you to this subject, and why now?

In June and July last year when the police announced people were dying from synthetics, that reignited interest in the story. So the project grew quite organically out of the original reporting we’d done. Someone suggested on one of our Facebook posts that we should do a documentary on this and we all looked around and thought ‘of course we should’.

It’s a story that really translates well to a visual medium too, right? Even the scenes in Tammara’s lounge, it says a lot about these substances. How did you find your subjects?

A lot of it came from the relationships that were formed during that initial reporting, before we’d even conceived as this as a video. Those relationships came about by way of us talking to people about their problems with this drug, and it ended up being critical to having access to these other people. Word of mouth got around, people put in a good word for us, and that’s sort of how it came about, just through those original relationships we formed.

Trey is currently managing his addiction successfully, even though he lost his friend and almost died himself. What to you was the difference? Is it a matter of needing a near-death experience in order to really kick these substances?

I couldn’t say. In terms of their stories, I think…in Trey’s case, I think yeah, he did need that. He talked a lot about how addicted he was and how hard this stuff is to quit, and that was something horrific that did shake him out of his malaise and allow him to get the impetus to quit. In Tammara’s case, I think from what I know she was using much more heavily than Trey, and in her case she was incarcerated for a while under the mental health act. That gave her some time away from the drugs, forcibly, but as you say she’s obviously still struggling somewhat.

Photo: Joe Hockley.

What sort of considerations did you make in presenting her story? She’s obviously mistrustful of the establishment as whole, so what did you have to consider when deciding what to show and what not to show of her life?

We built these relationships and for a long time before we even thought about bringing a camera into these situations we really tried to make sure these were trustful and straight-up relationships. And these relationships all continue to this day. We didn’t want to feel like we were taking advantage of these people, and so to get to that point, it was about having built these relationships and including Trey and Tammara in the creative process as well – letting them dictate what they were comfortable with. We were always listening to them. And we always maintained that trust.

Something I found particularly fascinating, and which is underreported for the most part, is the mood in the medical establishment. Everyone knows that a substance like heroin is dangerous, but if a doctor is presented with a heroin overdose, they’ve got a pretty good idea of what to do. These doctors are working backwards, starting with the symptoms, and figuring out the mechanism of the drug in reverse. What was the mood like talking to these experts?

I can only speak to what the doctor in the documentary said, but his thing was that there’s so much we don’t know about these drugs still. We know they cause seizures, but not really why, and we also know nothing about long term harms. He said if in 20 years people are showing up with massive kidney problems it could all be connected, but we really have no idea what the consequences will be.

Associate producer James Borrowdale and producer Ursula Williams. Image: Supplied.

Hand in hand with that, because of the illegality and underground market, it’s impossible to get a bead on what the current concoction is anyway. To me it doesn’t seem politically that there’s a lot happening in terms of reform. It’s almost been forgotten about in a sense.

It seems that way, doesn’t it? I know you’ve done some reporting on this, but there doesn’t seem to be huge political will to do something. Imagine if 20 people died in one year in some kind of industrial accident, or in the logging industry, there’d be an inquiry into exactly why. So it’s quite strange. There doesn’t seem to be that same level of urgency about this.

It’s astounding. If 25 people, heaps of them kids, dropped dead choking on their vomit from booze, it’d be a scandal.

The then-prime minister said last year something about personal responsibility being the best defence against this, and we’re sort of yet to see what the new government has done specifically or are thinking specifically on this. I can only hope that they’d take it a little more seriously or divert a little more attention that way.

Ex-user Trey. Image: Supplied.

I spoke to Ross Bell (of the NZ Drug Foundation) about this exact issue, and he explained that these are not designer drugs, they’re not the sort of drugs people use when there’s a lot of good things happening in their lives. These are drugs used by almost exclusively marginalised communities, and I wonder whether that’s part of the reason. If these were King’s College kids dropping dead, not kids out west, do you think it’d be different?

Yes, it’s no secret that synthetics, or synnyz, seem to predominately affect those communities, rough sleepers and lower income communities. If it was more affluent people probably there would be a bigger reaction, but every time I’ve put that to a minister they’ve always said ‘of course not, it’s the same for everyone’.

Yeah, well, they would say that. You’ve been working this beat for a while now. Based on what you’ve seen and learned, what would you say is the way forward? It almost feels like the legality of this stuff is besides the point.

There are two classic ways of looking at this. Under the Psychoactive Substances Act as it stands, manufacture and supply of this drug is a maximum two year sentence. I know there’s a bill in parliament at the moment that aims to increase that to eight years, bringing it in line with Class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act. That’s one way, and that’s very much the traditional deterrent. The other way would be to take another look at the Psychoactive Substances Act as a whole, giving it some of its power back, taking away some of the amendments that forbid animal testing and so on, which would be very much more of a regulatory and progressive attitude towards this issue. Then again, I don’t know if its too late for that now, because the underground market has continued unabated for so long. So it’s very hard to say.

That’s almost the feeling the documentary leaves you with. It doesn’t leave me filled with hope really.

No. And I guess Tammara’s story is tragic like that. She managed to stay clean for a bit, and then she relapsed. It’s obviously grim, but this is a grim drug, and our whole thing was that we wanted to tell these stories more than solve the issue singlehandedly. This is hopefully going to move the conversation forward, but as for what the actual solution will be, it’s hard to say.

If nothing else, it’s extremely clear that this is evil shit.

Most drugs you look at you can see that in the right situation they might be quite fun. Synthetics don’t seem to have any redeeming aspects at all.

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