From wastewater tests to warnings from ER doctors, High Alert is watching the country’s illegal drug supply. (Image: RNZ/123RF)
From wastewater tests to warnings from ER doctors, High Alert is watching the country’s illegal drug supply. (Image: RNZ/123RF)

The BulletinApril 12, 2022

High Alert for drugs

From wastewater tests to warnings from ER doctors, High Alert is watching the country’s illegal drug supply. (Image: RNZ/123RF)
From wastewater tests to warnings from ER doctors, High Alert is watching the country’s illegal drug supply. (Image: RNZ/123RF)

The country’s drug early warning system is working and has likely saved numerous lives in recent years, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

The country’s early warning system for dangerous drugs is working.

Three people were in a bad state outside Auckland’s SkyCity casino in November 2020. They took what they thought was MDMA earlier in the evening and it was hitting them hard. An ambulance was called and one of them told police they’d taken MDMA. That’s when New Zealand’s early warning system for dangerous drugs became involved. You might not know much about High Alert, but the system has helped save the lives of a number of New Zealanders in recent years. The Auckland incident is an example of how it works best.

A situation where deaths were likely avoided.

Detective inspector Blair Macdonald is the manager of the national drug intelligence bureau. He told The Bulletin what High Alert did next. “Naturally, we were quite concerned because MDMA doesn’t have a history of causing people to be hospitalised in that way. We were straight onto that,” he said.

One of the three gave the group a sample of the drug they’d taken. It was sent to the ESR laboratory for testing. It wasn’t MDMA, but the chemical methylenedianiline – an industrial chemical used to produce polymers, which doesn’t give you a high. It is, however, toxic and can cause a number of very unpleasant symptoms. High Alert put out an immediate alert on a Friday night that a yellow powder going around Auckland wasn’t MDMA. The next day, there was an unexpected turnout of people with yellow powder at a drug checking clinic run by the group KnowYourStuff.

A more recent case of catastrophe averted in the capital.

There was a similar event a few weeks ago in Wellington. The Dominion Post has reported on that incident, where both sellers and users came forward with what they thought were oxycodone tablets.  ESR found the pills to contain N-pyrrolidino etonitazene, an extremely potent opioid. The equivalent of a few grains of salt is likely a lethal dose. An alert went out and a number of sellers and users said they flushed the pills away. What could have led to deaths instead showed a number of groups working together. KnowYourStuff raised the alarm, High Alert got the drugs tested and put out a warning.

So what is High Alert?

Known publicly as High Alert, Drug Information and Alerts Aotearoa New Zealand was created after the country’s deadly synthetic cannabinoid crisis of 2018. RNZ wrote a chilling feature at the time about a Napier suburb that was “swallowed up” by the drug crisis. The government created High Alert to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. The group brings together police, DHBs, ambulance, customs, social agencies, emergency room doctors and drug checking organisations. They share information and hopefully create a national picture before a dangerous drug can take root.

High Alert is aided by extensive national wastewater testing. One week a month, the wastewater from 75% of New Zealanders is tested for meth, MDMA, cocaine, fentanyl, opioids, drug chemicals and cannabis (the last one only in Whangārei and Auckland). Within two months, High Alert is also expecting to add ketamine and eutylone to the wastewater testing system, reflecting changing drug use patterns in Aotearoa. “It allows us to understand what’s going on with consumption,” said Macdonald of the testing.

The benefits of keeping tabs on drug use.

With an opioid epidemic raging overseas, killing tens of thousands annually across North America, High Alert’s job isn’t to stop drug use, but to blunt the deaths that can happen. The NZ Herald has reported on the changing drug picture in New Zealand. With national oversight and a level of trust between health workers, testing groups and police – the group is barred from sharing any information with police officers for the purpose of enforcement or prosecution – High Alert can track drug use in real time.

“We’ve found that the same drug has caused harm or death from Palmerston North, to Hāwera in Taranaki and down to Christchurch. Until the drug early warning system came into existence, no one was able to connect those dots. Now, we’re actually able to see the harm occurring and we’re often able to get blood samples from the victims and confirm that these are the same drugs. We can start linking those harm events and focusing the alerts in those areas,” said Macdonald.

You can subscribe to High Alert for updates and alerts.

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