Revealed: The number of synthetic drug seizures at the border has shrunk

Some of the most dangerous forms of synthetic drugs killing New Zealanders are being picked up less and less by Customs.

Newshub can reveal the amount of 5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA - the two main synthetic drugs being seized at the border - has dropped from 65 seizures in 2017, to just 12 seizures in 2018.

Just one seizure of AMB-FUBINACA was made in 2018, compared to 23 in 2017.

The drop in seizures.
The drop in seizures. Photo credit: Newshub.

Health Minister David Clark told Newshub there could be a number of reasons why there's been a drop, pointing to difficulties in detecting drugs or because people are becoming more aware.

"It could mean those importing the substance are getting more difficult to be detected, it could mean there is less of that synthetic strain coming in, or it could be there are less synthetic drugs overall coming in because people are more aware of the health warnings.

"What I'm hearing from DHBs is their reporting of harm has gone down; that's encouraging but we'll be keeping a close eye on it."

Between 60 and 65 people have died from synthetic drug use since June 1, 2017.

A Coronial Services spokesperson told Newshub there are nine cases where the cause of death has been confirmed as synthetic cannabis toxicity, and around 54 cases which provisionally appear to be attributable to synthetic cannabis toxicity.

There have been 20 other deaths in the same time period where the substances have contributed to the death.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says it's welcome news, but adds authorities must remain vigilant.

"Let's not get complacent - these chemicals can change up really quickly. AMB-FUBINACA could be replaced with a much more dangerous chemical. It's great they're dropping, but I don't think there's any sophisticated reason for that.

"We have natural cycles when it comes to new substances, before AMB-FUBINACA there was another substance. It seems every six to 12 months the chemicals kind of change. This could be a part of the natural life cycle or very good law enforcement."

The Health Minister believes authorities are working hard to be on top of new developments, telling Newshub: "It's worrying when we don't necessarily know what's coming into the country, that's always the case. That's why we'll be watching it closely."

In December 2018, the Government announced it would implement a "suite of measures to tackle synthetic drugs". It's now introduced the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill to Parliament and is going through a select committee process.

The changes include:

  • classifying the main two synthetic drugs 5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA Class A
  • creating a temporary drug classification category, C1, so new drugs can be brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act
  • amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to specify in law that police should use their discretion and not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial
  • allocating $16.6 million to boost community addiction treatment services.

But National's Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown says the Government's dropped the ball and can act quicker.

"The Minister of Health has the ability to make them Class A drugs overnight, he doesn't need to legislate this."

Brown says the Health Minister should change the classifications today, telling Newshub: "It's far too little far too late, and they're using it as an opportunity to put decriminalisation of all drugs by stealth through at the same time."

Brown's Member's Bill which would've increased sentences for individuals supplying psychoactive substances, like synthetic cannabis, from two years in prison to a maximum of 14, is likely to be voted down in Parliament.