Urgent warning after powdered fentanyl found in New Zealand for first time, 11 hospitalised

Newshub can reveal a drug that 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.

Instead testing shows it was the dangerous and deadly opioid - fentanyl. 

The reality of America's fentanyl crisis - bodies lying in morgues

It's a deadly wave that's swept the US and seen hundreds of thousands die and left millions addicted.

But it's an epidemic we've mostly escaped - until now.

Late Saturday night police recovered a white powder after 11 people unknown to each other were hospitalised in Wairarapa.

"This is the first time New Zealand has seen powdered fentanyl on our shores so for us, that's highly concerning," said Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald, manager of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau (NDIB).

"I think it's very lucky we have not seen one of those individuals die."

Some of those who took the drug believe they had purchased cocaine. But testing has proved there was not a trace of it and police say it was instead fentanyl.

Officers are urgently working to establish where it came from and how far it's spread.

"If it's widely prevalent that's an incredibly dangerous place for us to be," said Det Insp Macdonald.

"Just one gram of fentanyl, pure fentanyl, can result in up to 20,000 doses of that drug."

Fentanyl is a strong opioid painkiller and useful in a medical sense. But it's lethal and incredibly easy to overdose on. It's up to 50 times stronger than heroin.

"It's been said in a medical journal article that New Zealand is grossly underprepared for a fentanyl outbreak," NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm warned.

That's why the New Zealand Drug Foundation is working with Police to share important messaging and encourage people to test their drugs.

But the problem is there's very little access.

"Our drug testing services are nowhere near as resourced as they need to be to be able to have outreach in every community, particularly those who do experience disproportionate harm as a result of substances," said Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick.

The Drug Foundation says it's time to not only increase access but change our drug laws. And a poll released on Sunday found most Kiwis want to see that happen.

It asked whether respondents supported rewriting the Misuse of Drugs Act and putting in place a health-based approach. Sixty-eight percent said yes while 23 percent opposed it.

It also asked whether we should remove penalties for drug use and put in place more support for education and treatment. Sixty-one percent were in support while 34 percent were not. 

"That's an acknowledgement that our current approach isn't working, it gets in the way of people seeking help and gets in the way of incidents like we are having right now," Helm said.

Addiction advocates agree.

"It turns good people into criminals and they need something else other than just being locked up," said anti-drug advocate Brendon Warne.

Something Warne knows all too well after battling an addiction to meth.

"I let my family down, I let everyone around me down and this is why today I raise awareness and I'm going to do this until my last breath," Warne said.

A fight that's set to continue especially with a dangerous and deadly drug like fentanyl looming on the horizon.