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A compilation of popular New Zealand drugs.
Design: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 13, 2023

Synthetic opioid ‘25 times more potent than fentanyl’ found in NZ drug supply

A compilation of popular New Zealand drugs.
Design: Tina Tiller

The potent drug nitazene is killing users overseas, and now testing shows that it’s turning up in other substances here.

In April, The Spinoff reported that one-third of drugs tested by the New Zealand Drug Foundation had traces of other substances. For example, bath salts are sold as cocaine and MDMA, ketamine is masquerading as LSD, and some “legit” ketamine is actually cough medicine. But ahead of the upcoming festival season – the first since the summer of 2019/2020 not to be affected by Covid-19 restrictions and, as such, the biggest in years – the NZ Drug Foundation has released a fresh warning.

In early November, High Alert – New Zealand’s drug early warning system – warned that nitazenes had been sold as other drugs. Nitazenes are identifiable by their orange-coloured powder (although they can come in different colours) and have been linked to a growing number of deaths overseas. They are a family of synthetic opioids that can be worse than fentanyl – in fact, the Drug Foundation said they are “thought to be 25 times more potent than fentanyl”. Effects of nitazenes can include seizures, lose of consciousness, fever, nausea and vomiting, among other things. 

The NZ Drug Foundation has also put out warnings about further dangerous synthetic opioids being sold as other substances of late, such as yellow oxycodone tablets turning out to be metonitazene. Metonitazene is a substance between 10 and 100 times more potent than morphine, depending on how it is administered, and its dangers are considered similar to fentanyl. 

NZDF executive director Sarah Helm is concerned about the growing prevalence of nitazenes being sold as other drugs. “These are very potent drugs that can cause overdose and death at very low doses, especially if people don’t know that they’re taking them,” she says. Helm is particularly worried about people who lack experience with drugs and the necessary preparation skills, since synthetic opioids can come in a variety of forms and substances are often misidentified. “We’ve seen them sold around the country in many different colours and forms, including pills, powders, gel caps and liquids,” she explains. But veteran opioid users are at risk too. “Even people who are used to taking opioids are finding themselves in trouble. Because these drugs are so potent, it is hard to measure an accurate dose.” 

Helm argues that improving the availability of naloxone, a medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, is more crucial than ever. “Naloxone saves lives and can reverse a nitazene overdose. We’re urging people to get their hands on it if they can, but we need to make it easier to get,” she says. The NZ Drug Foundation is also “urging people, no matter what they have and how experienced they are, to get their drugs checked if they can.” 

Drug checking is a free and legal process that helps people find out what’s really in their drugs so they can make informed decisions about if, when and how they take those drugs. The Drug Foundation works with KnowYourStuffNZ, NZ Needle Exchange and the ESR lab on testing. Importantly, every test includes a complimentary harm reduction session. Those who participate in drug checking remain completely anonymous, as it is illegal for providers to record any identifying information about participants.

Last year, the Drug Foundation ran 73 drug check clinics across Auckland, Carterton, Christchurch, Gisborne, Lower Hutt, Masterton, New Plymouth, Wainuiomata and Wellington – testing 1,720 samples. Clinics are run in conjunction with festivals, student unions/associations and their parent universities, regional needle exchanges, retailers, non-profits, STI advocates, city missions, the Aotearoa Sex Workers’ Collective and Auckland Pride. 

“The most dangerous drug is the drug that you don’t know about,” says the Drug Foundation’s Emily Hughes. The purpose of testing is not to reprimand users or confiscate drugs. “Ultimately, for us, testing comes down to the power of knowledge and harm reduction. For many people, this is the first time they’ve had an open and honest conversation about their drug use with a health professional,” says Hughes. 

Hughes notes that although there are plans to expand drug checking, it currently can’t cover every corner of the motu, so she has some tips for people for whom testing initiatives aren’t accessible. Firstly, “if you can test your own drugs, do it!” Testing kits can be purchased online, for example, through Cosmic or the NZ Needle Exchange. Secondly, follow drug-checking schemes on social media and check their websites for up-to-date information on the latest dangerous drug trends. Thirdly, “start with a low dose to test it out – it may seem simple, but it is really important.” 

Information about harm reduction is always available. If you or someone you know needs help, you can find useful information on the following websites: Alcohol and Drug Helpline, Family Drug Support Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Government, New Zealand Police and The Level

The Alcohol and Drug Helpline can be reached at 0800 787 797 (phone call) and 8681 (text), and if you would like to attend a drug-checking clinic, see the calendar here

This is Public Interest Journalism supported by NZ On Air.

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