Just 57% of the drugs tested in Aotearoa last year were what people thought they were, according to a new report from the NZ Drug Foundation.
The organisation has released its findings from its first full year as a licensed drug checking provider and its Principal Science Advisor Emily Hughes says the results show New Zealanders should never assume they know exactly what they’re taking.
Twenty-one percent of the drugs tested in 2022 were a mix of the drug people thought they were taking with one or more other drugs, while 12% were another substance entirely.
“Because the New Zealand drug market is quite volatile … we encourage people to never assume that what they think they have is what they actually have,” Hughes says.
“The reality is things are constantly changing,” she says.
“There's always variety amongst drugs, whether it's been replaced with something else or there's another psychoactive in it, or whether there's just a whole bunch of binder or filler that people need to be aware of.”
Testing revealed a wide variety of things were passed off as drugs in New Zealand last year including oil, creatine and caffeine.
The NZ Drug Foundation says lots of the drugs they test contain binders and fillers that may not have psychoactive properties - but it’s still important to know exactly what those are.
And some fillers can be harmful depending on how they’re taken, the foundation says..
MDMA the most common drug people thought they had when they bought it
MDMA was far and away the most common drug people thought they had when they brought it in for testing, making up 59% of the total.
The other most common presumed drugs were amphetamines (5%), cocaine (5%), ketamine (4%), LSD (4%) and cannabis (4%).
Eighty-two percent of the MDMA checked was MDMA or MDMA mixed with fillers like sugar, but 12% wasn’t MDMA at all. And of that number, 37% were synthetic cathinones.
Hughes says taking synthetic cathinones can be very different to taking MDMA.
“People can start to feel quite agitated, quite anxious, nauseous [after the drug peaks],” she says.
“Then the comedown from these drugs is quite different from MDMA, and can be very, very rough. We've had people who report not sleeping for 48 or 72 hours after taking synthetic cathinones.”
Reaching out for drug testing
Drug checking is a free and legal process in New Zealand and Hughes is encouraging people to bring in any drug they plan to use.
She says the service also offers more than just confirmation of what’s in your drugs.
“It's just a really great opportunity to have a conversation about harm reduction, and be in a space with people who are not going to judge you for what you're using or how you're using it.”
Hughes says the information and advice about drugs is especially useful for young people.
Many of them might not have had this conversation with somebody who's not their friend and it's really helpful to just be able to have a conversation about something that is kind of taboo like drugs with other people in a space where it's really safe to ask questions and share your experiences as well.”
Hughes says people around the country who don’t have easy access to drug testing services can still keep themselves informed.
She says people should follow organisations like The Level and Know Your Stuff on social media, as they can learn a lot about what substances are circulating in New Zealand.
“If there’s something super dangerous … it’s a really great way of keeping up to date as to what’s out there so that you can make decisions to keep yourself safer.”