Drug abuse expert warns drug use in 21st century is more dangerous than ever

A drug abuse expert has issued a stark warning: using drugs in the 21st century is more dangerous than it ever has been. 

The warning comes after 12 people were hospitalised after unknowingly taking the potent drug fentanyl in Wairarapa over the weekend.

The United States has seen the harm caused by fentanyl first-hand, and the US National Institute of Drug Abuse science policy branch chief Dr Emily Einstein said it's everywhere. 

"I've heard the phrase fentanyl is everywhere, I've heard it from many communities."

Tens of thousands of people die each year from overdosing on the deadly opioid, which is 50 times more potent than heroin.

And the number of American law enforcement seizures of the drug has skyrocketed.

"[From] 300kg in 2018, to more than 2400kg in 2021," said Dr Einstein. 

But she said the most concerning increase is the number of counterfeit pills in circulation.

"In 2018 law enforcement seized 42,000 of these pills, in 2021 2 million of these pills."

And in Aotearoa, managing director at Know Your Stuff Wendy Allison said there are also substances misleadingly sold as other drugs or mixed with other dangerous substances.

"This year our data has shown 20 percent of samples have not been what they are presumed to be. So that's one in five."

Drugs are smuggled into the country illegally every day - on Monday Customs arrested a man for importing 62kgs of methamphetamine into Aotearoa. 

"There's hundreds if not thousands of kilos coming in each year, we're only catching a few of these shipments," rehabilitation programme operator Billy Macfarlane told AM on Monday.

Macfarlane wants to see New Zealand change its approach to drugs.

"We've got to break the chain of demand, rather than the chain of supply. There's always going to be supply," Macfarlane said. 

Allison agrees there needs to be a societal shift.

"If we acknowledge drugs is something normal people do, getting help for drug use will become more like going to the doctor than about risking ending up in jail."

Until then, Allison urges users to check what they're taking - especially with fentanyl circulating.

"Fentanyl is very very potent and the chance of getting hurt if you do have fentanyl is very very high."

A very very high risk,  just to get high. 

This article was amended on June 29 because it incorrectly stated that narcotics being misleadingly sold as other drugs or mixed with other dangerous substances was on the rise.