Police warn of dangers of drug GBL as volume seized in New Zealand increases

Police are warning of the dangers of the drug GBL as the amount of the fantasy-type substance seized in New Zealand increases.

Designed originally as an anaesthetic, Gamma-Butyrolactone (GBL) is a central nervous system depressant - often considered a liquid ecstasy - which slows the body down and can provide a euphoric effect often within 15 to 20 minutes. It is a more potent version of Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GBH).

Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald, the National Drug Intelligence Bureau manager, told The AM Show on Friday that over the past four years, there has been an increase in seizure data for the drug in New Zealand, clearly indicating a market here. 

Data - not including November figures - shows the total volume seized in 2020 (479 litres) has increased 45 percent compared to in 2019 (330 litres), with the top three export countries being China, Hong Kong and Australia. Air cargo interception volumes have risen from 156 litres in 2019 to 316 litres in 2020.

"It is generally a clear, oily liquid. Although that could literally be anything, our Customs staff are excellent at identifying this substance," Det Insp Macdonald said on Friday.

"Because it is difficult to conceal as a liquid, we find that often it is not cleverly concealed, perhaps like other commodities such as methamphetamine, which does make the task of detecting it a little bit easier for us."

Police want to get the message out about how damaging the drug can be, especially considering 1ml can cost just $5.

"It is a dangerous drug without doubt… we have a substance here which is very easy to overdose on. An active dose is as little as 1ml. We really are seeing people who are struggling to accurately include the right dose amount," said Det Insp Macdonald.

"In the last couple of months, we have had incidents where children have accidentally ingested this substance because adults have been keeping it in either water bottles or orange juice containers. These children have ended up in hospital in very critical conditions.

"If you overdose, you will end up unconscious. Your respiratory system will slow right down. That can lead to all sorts of issues. It is a drug that potentially you could go to sleep and not wake up again."

He said since about 2017, the Coroner has identified 13 cases linked to fantasy-type substances. GBL is often also used by those consuming meth as it can enhance the euphoric effect and the depressant can manage the "comedown effects" of meth as a stimulant.

Like with other unregulated drugs, Det Insp MacDonald said buyers can never guarantee what they are purchasing. 

'I was recently talking to our scientists at the ESR who advised me they had done a test on a recent batch of GBL and had detected other solvents within that as well."

He said police's advice for young people is that the safest drug use is no drug use, but there is information online - such as from the NZ Drug Foundation or on the High Alert website - about reducing risk.

There have been GBL seizures in recent weeks. Four hundred litres of the drug were found in Wellington in November as part of police's Operation Skipjack.

“Operation Skipjack will cause significant disruption in the illicit drug market and the seizure of such an enormous of quantity of GBL will certainly reduce and prevent the harm associated with this drug," Detective Inspector Darrin Thomson said at the time. 

"We are sending a clear message to these people that if you are going to derive your income from drug activity that harms our communities, we will be using all the legislation available to disrupt that behaviour."