MDMA soaring in popularity in New Zealand, making its way into high schools

There are more 'party drugs' in New Zealand than ever before and some are making their way into our high schools. 

The amount of MDMA, GHB, ketamine and LSD seized by police and Customs has shot up significantly over the past two years. 

LSD or 'acid' tabs seizures went up 30 percent compared to 2019.

Nearly twice the amount of GHB - also known as 'fantasy' or 'liquid ecstasy' - was collected by police and Customs in 2020 and seizures of ketamine also more than doubled. 

But it appears the party drug of choice for Kiwis is MDMA. 

More than a million pills were seized by police and Customs in 2020 and the latest wastewater data indicates we're consuming almost the same amount of MDMA a week as we are methamphetamine.

It's often called the 'love drug', and it's an increasingly familiar fixture in the party scene. MDMA is known for its euphoric effects - and Kiwis are loving it a lot. 

Police say some view it as a softer drug, without the gang connections and stigma associated with methamphetamine. 

"I think we're seeing somewhat of a 'culture shift' that MDMA is now seen as a socially acceptable drug to use," explains Deputy Inspector Blair MacDonald. 

With premium pricing, New Zealand is an attractive market for importers. 

"One kilo of MDMA purchased on the international market would cost around $4000. Once you land that back in New Zealand you're looking at upwards of between $80,000 and $100,000," says Det Insp MacDonald.

The amount of MDMA seized by authorities from 2018 to 2019 increased by 560 percent.

Last year more than one million pills were captured by police and Customs and even with a decrease due to COVID-19, it was still more than double the amount seized in 2018. 

Known as 'MD', 'molly' or 'ecstasy', it's mostly imported from Europe through the dark web and then sold locally on social media or encrypted apps like Snapchat and Discord. 

Police say Kiwis pay around $200 for a gram of powder or $40 for a single pill or 'cap'. 

"We understand that cost is a big factor so at $40 for a 'line' or a 'pill' that's much much cheaper than perhaps an expensive night out in town," says Det Insp MacDonald.

This 'cheaper' class B drug is more accessible than ever before, police say it's even in Aotearoa's high schools. 

Newshub spoke to three 17-year-olds who say MDMA for many, is now the norm. 

"Well we're not allowed to drink at our school ball and a comment earlier today actually was 'we'll still have a really good time, we'll just do a line before we come'." 

They say some of their peers take it most weekends, teens as young as 14 have tried it and it's easy to get. 

"I've seen photos on people's stories on Snapchat simply selling and you'd go back 20 minutes later and it'd be gone."

A new police report says the part of the attraction is there's no calories or hangover from the drug, but these teens say there's another motivator. 

"We know people who take it to 'sober drive'. If you get pulled over when you're on MD you're not 'illegal', like they're not gonna test you for it, you can get away with it." 

Bar owners are also seeing more punters high on party drugs. 

"There are more people using it, especially before they go out. But also whilst they're out during the night. You also see it if there's a rave in town."

Wellington's Trinity Group owns three bars and restaurants across the city and says some nights half of its customers could be under the influence.

"We get caught out a bit by the speed at which someone can look ok, to not being ok, and we know they haven't been drinking. "

While more people are using it, some experts say the harm associated with pure MDMA is relatively low.

The problem starts when people take what they think is 'MD' but it's actually something else.  

St John Auckland central territory manager Braden Stark says he usually sees "anxiety hallucinations, seizures, nausea, vomiting or in the worst-case scenario, death". 

These frightening symptoms are often caused by a substance known as 'synthetic cathinones'.

It's usually sold to unknowing party-goers as 'MDMA' but it's more potent and wears off quickly, so people take more, and that's when they overdose. 

St John sees overdoses often and Newshub was with paramedics when they were called to one in Auckland's CBD. At 1:30am on a Saturday,  they find an 18-year-old woman slipping in and out of consciousness. When she comes to she thrashes her head and grinds her jaw.

Paramedics were told she'd taken anti-anxiety medication lorazepam but St John says it's impossible to know.

"We don't get told what people are taking a lot of the time, often they don't know. We don't know what the substance is that they're taking, it could be anything," says Stark.  

An unknown that makes this illegal and unregulated drug that much more dangerous at a time when its popularity is soaring.