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ESR battling to keep on top of illicit designer drugs

11 July 2018

ESR scientists are fighting to keep on top of so-called designer drugs, which they say are evolving rapidly.

With the emergence of “party pills” or “legal highs” in the past decade, the Institute of Environmental Health and Science (ESR) says illicit drug manufacturers are increasingly “tweaking” designer drugs in a bid to help their products avoid detection when entering the country.

Such new psychoactive substances have become a problem all around the world, and New Zealand is no different.

ESR senior scientist Cameron Johnson says more than 730 new substances were reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime between 2009 and 2016, a rate of one a week.

In New Zealand, scientists here have identified more than 120 new designer drugs. About half of these new drugs were identified using conventional chemical profiling techniques at ESR. The remainder were identified through a collaboration with the University of Auckland, using state-of-the-art spectroscopy. Developing such new analytical methods has been crucial in providing valuable, real-time information on border seizure trends.

Johnson says identified designer drugs seized coming here even a year ago are now rarely seen, only to be replaced by a new variation.

“These drugs evolve so rapidly that we need to be identifying them in real-time.”

“In addition to the proliferation of substances, an added risk is that molecular ’tweaks’ may alter the drugs’ psychoactive properties, increasing the potential for them to cause harm.”

“And because many of them are formulated in a laboratory somewhere with little known information on their effects or potency, there is a clear danger through intoxication or even death to anyone using them,” he says.

“Every day, thousands of people, packages and large amounts of cargo arrive at the border and enter the country, with the Customs-ESR Screening Laboratory in Auckland playing an important part in screening and identifying suspected drug samples.

“Given the continued, unrelenting appearance of new designer drugs at the border, there is ample justification for such a system to operate on a continual basis,” says Johnson.

“With the increase in access and constant evolution of designer drugs, real-time information is crucial.”

He says ESR is continuing discussions with stakeholders to ensure such necessary high-tech services are able to continue to deliver valuable insights that help to keep New Zealanders safe.


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