NZ Drug Foundation says country not prepared for fentanyl circulation, calls for law review

The New Zealand Drug Foundation says the country is not prepared for fentanyl to be circulating and is calling for a review of our laws.

It comes after Newshub revealed on Sunday fentanyl - which kills tens of thousands of people in the US each year - could now be circulating in New Zealand. 

In the past 48 hours, 11 people have been hospitalised in the Wairarapa region after consuming what they thought was cocaine and methamphetamine. Instead, testing shows it was the dangerous and deadly opioid - fentanyl.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm told AM on Monday the country is not ready for a fentanyl outbreak.

"We live in considerable worry about the prospect of a fentanyl outbreak in New Zealand of it adulterating our illicit drug supply, because of the harm it does create," she told host Ryan Bridge. 

"New Zealand is quite underprepared for this situation partly because of our drug laws and partly because of access to harm reduction services, and overdose interventions like naloxone."    

Helm said fentanyl test strips and overdose reversal drugs are being taken to Wairarapa on Monday. 

"One of the main recommendations we have for people that have white powder… is to use a fentanyl test strip to ascertain whether or not your drug is what you think it is, so we are carting some of those over," she said.

"There is an opioid overdose reversal drug called naloxone, it's very effective at resuscitating people and is the reason why those dozen people are still alive right now. We have a shortage of it in New Zealand and we are carting the 45 boxes we have of it over to the Wairarapa today with the help of the police." 

Helm said it's a "miracle" those 11 people hospitalised by the drug are still alive.

"Luckily the ambulance services over there [Wairarapa] have it but it's not a widely available medication, so we are very, very lucky," she told AM. 

"It's a miracle, literally, that those dozen people are still alive and I'm really hoping this is the extent of the issue over there." 

New Zealand Drug Foundation’s executive director Sarah Helm.
New Zealand Drug Foundation’s executive director Sarah Helm. Photo credit: AM

Helm is calling for the Government to review the country's drug laws and focus them on harm reduction. 

"The other real worry here is our drug laws. What we have seen in the [United] States is overdoses are really amplified by a mess of a drug law," she said. "So you have seen the deaths continue to climb and we badly need to reconsider our drug laws, and our approach to resourcing, harm reduction and overdose protection - and we really need to reorientate our way of addressing drug issues." 

It comes after a poll found about two-thirds of New Zealanders support changing the country's drug laws to remove criminal penalties and offer education, treatment and other health-based approaches.

The polling, conducted by The Navigators for the NZ Drug Foundation and released at the weekend, shows 68 percent of Kiwis support replacing the country's 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act with a health-based approach.

Just under two-thirds (61 percent) support removing penalties for drug use and putting in place more support for education and treatment.

Watch the full interview with Sarah Helm above.