According to a statement issued today by the Chief Coroner and the police, seven deaths in the past month in Auckland have been linked to the use of "synthetic cannabis". A follow-up report in the Herald has more bad news: a St John's spokesman reports that the service is seeing 20 people a day with "some life-threatening effects following synthetic cannabis."
The St John's spokesman added, chillingly:
"We don't know what this drug actually is; it's just been labelled synthetic cannabis."
This is really important. The only obvious common factor here is that people are getting acutely sick and dying after using vegetable matter with something sprayed on it. We don't know if there's a new drug in circulation, a bad batch of a known drug, whether the acute presentations all relate to the same drug or even whether the drug behind this is actually even a synthetic cannabinoid/cannibomimetic as those are conventionally understood.
Indeed, I'm told there is speculation among health officials that one of the drugs involved may be the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
If so, it's very, very bad news. Fentanyl has been responsible for a wave of thousands of overdose deaths in North America. It's now being cooked up by Mexican drug gangs, because it's cheaper and safer to produce than heroin – and 50 times as potent.
The horrifying numbers announced today demand a very focused and urgent health response. And a key part of that is the sharing of any and all knowledge about the contents of anything seized as "synthetic cannabis". The police statement refers to the "possibility that some products can also be laced with other unknown chemicals."
That's not really good enough – and it's especially not good enough if we are dealing with fentanyl. New Zealand public health officials have been a bit ho-hum about the distribution of the opioid antidote naloxone, reasoning that we don't really have much of an opioid overdose problem here. We might do now, and that means a new level of response. Users need to be warned about what they're using – and, if it is fentanyl, given ready access to naloxone.
If it's not fentanyl but some other deadly substance – which could equally be the case, because we simply do not know since these products were consigned entirely to the black market by the amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act – we still need to know.
What we don't need is the police distributing shock video footage of sick, vulnerable people suffering the effects of whatever this is to media. That helps no one. What would help is treating this is an acute public health emergency and sharing the assays of all the seized drugs, immediately.