AMB-FUBINACA, a synthetic cannabinoid 100 times stronger than weed, is back in NZ

A synthetic cannabinoid drug said to be up to 100 times stronger than the real thing is back in New Zealand, just weeks after apparently being wiped out. 

AMB-FUBINACA has been linked to dozens of deaths, providing a massive hit that can leave users acting like "zombies". 

"The synthetic cannabinoid AMB-FUBINACA has been detected in a number of locations across New Zealand," an update on the Government's (DIA) High Alert website said on Tuesday.

"This is particularly concerning as AMB-FUBINACA has been one of the most deadly illicit substances in NZ in recent years, having been responsible for the majority of [drug] fatalities in 2017-2019."

Invented in 2009 by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, development was abandoned and it was never tested on humans. It later showed up on the black market as a replacement for cannabis. 

Synthetic cannabis replacements, also known as legal highs, were popular in the early 2010s, before a crackdown saw them outlawed in 2014. AMB-FUBINACA was first reported here in 2017.

Just two weeks ago scientists said there had been a "complete absence" of AMB-FUBINACA in New Zealand since mid-2019, "replaced by different synthetic cannabinoids". But now they're back. 

"It is concerning to see the reappearance of this synthetic cannabinoid which has been previously linked with overdose deaths," said University of Otago addiction specialist Doug Sellman, saying its danger ranked somewhere between heroin and methamphetamine - a danger many people are unaware of.

"The safety ratio is a measure of how dangerous a drug is in terms of overdose, and is a ratio between the lethal dose and a typical recreational dose of the drug. The lower the number the more dangerous it is. Heroin is the most dangerous of the commonly used drugs at six, methamphetamine is 10, and ecstasy is 16... Natural cannabis is off the scale at over 1000."

Chris Wilkins.
Chris Wilkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

Chris Wilkins, a drug researcher at Massey University, said AMB-FUBINACA's reappearance can be blamed on the lack of a legal market for cannabis users.

"Most people who use synthetic cannabis have reported they prefer to use natural cannabis, and consequently greater legal access to cannabis could be considered."

He said leaving it to "unregulated black market production and manufacturers with limited or no expertise in chemistry" is a recipe for disaster.

"Countries with more liberal cannabis laws are less likely to report synthetic cannabinoid use and related deaths."

Dr Sellman is calling for a legal cannabis regime to "drown out" the black market. 

"This is what you expect in prohibition - for the appearance of high-potency forms of the drug. This is unfortunately one of the downsides of prohibition - that there isn't the control over these potentially dangerous forms of drugs that there would be if there was a regulated market." 

The reason synthetic cannabinoids thrive under a black market is because of their potency - they're easier to hide than the equivalent batch of natural, much weaker, cannabis. 

AMB-FUBINACA is currently a Class A controlled substance along with methamphetamine, magic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin and LSD, as well as another synthetic cannabinoid 5F-ADB. 

"Synthetic cannabinoids are designed to react with the same part of the brain in an attempt to create an effect like that of THC," the High Alert update said. "However, while synthetic cannabinoids might have a similar effect to cannabis, it can give completely different psychoactive highs, or side-effects."

Side-effects include: 

  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea, or vomiting
  • tremors, seizures
  • sedation, drowsiness
  • slowed reaction times
  • confusion, loss of touch with reality
  • paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks
  • loss of consciousness.

Pharmacology academic Michelle Glass told Newshub in 2017, when AMB-FUBINACA first arrived here, that it was 100 times stronger than cannabis. 

"These weren't designed to go into humans... These are very strong-acting compounds. They are driving the receptor much more strongly than other synthetics we've used in the past."

There were 23 seizures of AMB-FUBINACA at the border in 2017, and just one in 2018. 

The country will vote next month on whether to legalise real cannabis, which has never been unequivocally linked to any deaths via overdose. 

The DIA would like to hear from anyone who's seen or heard about AMB-FUBINACA being here in New Zealand - reports can be made anonymously on its website.