Synthetics put 12 more in hospital
‘Mum, I want to die’, a son addicted to synthetic drugs told his mum when she pleaded with him to give them up. Within a year, the 24-year-old was dead, reports Sam Sherwood.
Twelve more people have been admitted to Christchurch Hospital this week after taking synthetic drugs, bringing the total to 31 people in the past three weeks.
A Canterbury District Health Board spokesman said three of the 12 people needed intensive care treatment.
Of the 31 people hospitalised since September 20 after taking synthetic drugs, six were admitted to the intensive care unit, where two of the six remain.
Two others are believed to have died after taking the drug during the same period. It is understood they did not have hospital treatment.
The admissions prompted a crackdown, with police raiding seven properties and charging seven people with supplying psychoactive substances.
During one of the search warrants, police found five people unconscious on the side of the road, one with an empty synthetics bag sitting on his backpack. They found another man unconscious at the nearby deal house, which was set up like a shop, with pre-packaged synthetics for sale, cash, scales and multiple cellphones.
Sergeant Chris Barker, of Canterbury’s offender prevention team, said police were seeing a concerning trend of people passing out after taking the drugs.
‘‘We don’t know what we can put that down to yet, we’re still waiting for results to come back but it would be fair to say there’s either a new substance or a bad batch or some sort of mixing going on,’’ he said.
New Zealand Drug Foundation drug demand reduction programmes manager Nathan Brown said synthetic drugs had caused a ‘‘public health emergency’’.
Since the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced in 2014, more dangerous substances with stronger effects were being sold on the black market, he said.
‘‘Drugs like this will keep coming, so New Zealand has to get prepared,’’ he said.
‘‘We can’t turn back the clock or wish these problems away.
‘‘An urgent, comprehensive response is needed with police, hospitals, St John and social services working together.’’
St John territory manager for Christchurch metro Craig Downing said last week there had been a ‘‘substantial’’ rise in the number of patients using synthetic drugs and the level of their aggression.
People using synthetic drugs were unpredictable and challenging to manage, he said.
‘‘Our staff are getting exposed to patients who are acting out both physically and verbally.’’
The last 48 hours of Roger Lu’s life were spent in a hospital bed in China. He could not sleep. The hallucinations of demons, the continual screaming and agitation were too much. Eventually the blood vessels in his eyes would burst.
The 24-year-old’s mother had tried desperately to get him off synthetic drugs. She took him to various agencies, including the Christchurch City Mission and Community Alcohol and Drug Services.
She sent text messages to drug dealers to leave her son alone. It was to no avail.
Lu’s addiction to synthetic drugs started more than a year ago, after several years of smoking marijuana with friends.
His mother, Amy Zhou, says the change in her son was almost immediate. He went from an intelligent, active young man who regularly played badminton to ‘‘lazy’’ and uninterested in anything other than his drug of choice: synthetics.
By this stage he was spending about $420 a week on the drug, funded mainly via electronic music he sold on a Chinese version of Facebook, WeChat.
His first serious overdose was in March.
Lu, who was boarding with a woman in her 60s, was found unconscious by his mother at The Palms shopping centre in the Christchurch suburb of Shirley, and taken by ambulance to Christchurch Hospital, where he remained for three days.
Zhou and her friend, Peter Sibbald, who has known the family for about five years, went through Lu’s cellphone and read text messages between him, his friends and drug dealers.
Every message was about one thing: their next drug score.
‘‘The three or four friends would message each other seeing who has got the money, who has got the drugs, where can they get it from. They tended to share. If someone’s got money one day, but maybe not the next, they’d share,’’ Sibbald says.
Zhou and Sibbald messaged several of the dealers, telling them to leave Lu alone. They received death threats in response.
Lu’s attempt to give up lasted three weeks; his addiction was too strong.
He eventually changed the pin number on his phone to stop his mother accessing it.
Zhou told her son the drug was dangerous, but he did not care.
‘‘In his mind he didn’t want to give up, he was too addicted,’’ she says. ‘‘I told Roger a lot of times, ‘you realise the drug’s very, very horrible to you and your body, if you can’t stop you will die, do you know that’. He said, ‘oh mum, I want to die’.
‘‘I asked why and he didn’t answer.’’
Smoking in the airport toilet
In the end Zhou decided Lu needed a clean break. She arranged for him to travel to China to stay with his father and other relatives so he could detox.
The day he flew out, a family friend was keeping an eye on him. He got high in a toilet.
By the time Zhou and Sibbald took Lu to the airport he appeared to be OK, Sibbald says.
‘‘He wanted to go to the toilet at McDonald’s, came out wasted, wanted to go to the toilet at the airport, came out more wasted.
‘‘He left his passport at home so we came back [home] to pick his passport up. By the time of the second trip he was so wasted I’m surprised they let him on the plane.’’
Sibbald says they considered not allowing him to leave, but believed that if he stayed in New Zealand he would die.
Soon after landing at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport the next day, Lu is believed to have smoked synthetic drugs again.
He missed his connecting flight to Jinan, the capital of China’s Shandong province. He called Zhou from the airport, but he was not making sense.
His father bought him a second plane ticket, but when it came to Lu boarding, police were called because of his erratic behaviour. He was taken to a police station before being admitted to hospital.
By the time Lu’s father arrived at the hospital, he was suffering hallucinations, saying he could see demons. Then came the screaming and agitation.
About 48 hours later, the blood vessels in his eyes burst.
Sibbald says Lu’s father reported that his whole face changed. ‘‘Roger was no longer even human, but rather contorted like that of an animal. He was constantly screaming and no longer could see or recognise anyone. He felt like his head would explode.’’
Lu died about 48 hours after being admitted to hospital. His heart failed from a drug overdose.
Several days later Zhou went to see Lu’s friends. She told them to learn from her son’s death – to stop taking synthetic drugs.
New substance, or bad batch?
Synthetic drugs are thought to have contributed to the deaths of 40 to 45 people since June last year. Because Lu died in China, he is not counted among them.
Most people using synthetic drugs have no idea what they are using. Often called synthetic cannabis, the substances typically consist of a smokable plant material with a synthetic cannabinoid applied to it. The liquid form can be used in a vaporiser.
The drugs, then called ‘‘legal highs’’, were banned with the introduction of the Psychoactive
Substances Act in 2014 amid concerns they were highly addictive and potentially destructive to health and mental wellbeing.
According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, there are hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids, all invented in the past 20 years. Like cannabis, they target the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Those commonly used in New Zealand include 5F-ADB, ABFUBINACA, AMB-FUBINACA and JWH-122.
Sergeant Chris Barker, of Canterbury’s offender prevention team, has a simpler version: ‘‘They just throw a whole lot of chemicals into a plant material and then deal it.’’
In Christchurch, two deaths and the admittance of 31 people to hospital – at least six of whom required intensive care – linked to synthetic drugs since September 20, prompted police to raid six properties and charge five people with supplying psychoactive substances.
On their way to one, officers found five people unconscious, or near to it, on the side of the road – one with an empty synthetics bag in his backpack.
They found yet another man unconscious at the nearby deal house, which was set up like a shop, with pre-packaged synthetics for sale, cash, scales and multiple cellphones.
Barker says police are seeing a ‘‘concerning trend’’ of people passing out after taking the drugs.
‘‘We don’t know what we can put that down to yet, we’re still waiting for results to come back, but it would be fair to say there’s either a new substance or a bad batch or some sort of
mixing going on.
‘‘They’re not scientists, they’re drug dealers, so you really are gambling with your life when you start buying stuff from people who have really no knowledge what they’re doing.’’
Barker says many users want to get off the drugs and know the dangers, but are addicted.
NZ needs to prepare
Health Minister Dr David Clark wants synthetic drugs reclassified to a Class A drug, alongside heroin and cocaine, so police can ‘‘go after the peddlers [and] interrupt the supply of them into the community’’. That decision is weeks away. Drug Foundation drug demand reduction programmes manager Nathan Brown says synthetic drugs have caused a ‘‘public health emergency’’.
Since the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced, more dangerous substances with stronger effects have been sold on the black market, he says.
‘‘Drugs like this will keep coming, so New Zealand has to get prepared. We can’t turn back the clock or wish these problems away.
‘‘An urgent, comprehensive response is needed, with police, hospitals, St John and social services working together.’’
The foundation was working closely with more than a dozen organisations and Government agencies to get more information about the substances, including a drug checking service.
‘‘The most vulnerable need a lot of support, like one-to-one assistance to get people’s life on track, access to treatment.
‘‘We also need to get accurate information out there so people can make informed choices.’’
Roger Lu, 24, died in July after overdosing on synthetic cannabis.
Amy Zhou says her son went from being an intelligent, active young man to ‘‘lazy’’ and uninterested in anything but taking synthetic drugs.
Synthetic cannabis found during a recent search of properties in Christchurch.