30 Oct 2017

Researchers are testing sewage to understand NZ’s drug problem

1:31 pm on 30 October 2017

Diving for hard data.


While there’s plenty of data about drug and alcohol use in New Zealand’s main centres, Massey University is trying to understand what’s happening in smaller towns and cities.

The answer? Testing people’s sewage.

The pilot study is led by Associate Professor Chris Wilkins, who started collecting samples from wastewater and sewage treatment plants on Saturday.

It is partly inspired by a spate of recent deaths related to synthetic cannabis.

“The recent 20 or so deaths show there’s a changing environment in terms of drug use. We want to identify what drugs are being used,” says Dr Wilkins.

“There’s been an increase in dangerous synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of other drugs. It’s not just cannabinoids, but synthetic opioids as well.”

Dr Wilkins, who has studied drug use in New Zealand for more than 15 years, says the advantage of testing for drugs and alcohol from pooled sewage in regional areas is there’s usually only one treatment plant for the community.

Another reason for the timing is to study people’s drug and alcohol use over the Christmas period.

A major issue the researchers hope to address is the huge demand for methamphetamine, and other drug treatment in small-town NZ.

“Health workers want hard data to take to the country’s decision-makers - a lot of small towns and cities have really poor access to health services and it’s unlikely someone’s going to come in and open a treatment centre," says Dr Wilkins.

Someone may think they are using ecstasy, but it’s actually cathinone.

Sewage and wastewater in major centres will also be tested. The study is completely confidential.

Testing will take place over the next four months. Dr Wilkins says the results will hopefully be released early next year.

He says the method is a lot more effective than conducting social surveys of large groups of people.

“The problem with a social survey is that drug users don’t know exactly what they’re taking. For example, someone may think they are using ecstasy, but it’s actually cathinone.”

The researchers also monitor social media and encrypted drug markets to keep track of possible new designer drugs.

Last month, a police study analysing levels of alcohol and drugs in detainees at Whangarei, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch stations was released.

It found 47 per cent of those interviewed last year were dependent on synthetic cannabinoids, up from 24 per cent in 2013.

Three in five people described synthetics as "very easy" to obtain.

As of last month, police have linked about 20 deaths to synthetic drugs. They, and the Chief Coroner, have reinforced strong warnings to people about the dangers of synthetics.

The Chief Coroner is currently investigating these deaths.

Listen to Chris Wilkins on RNZ’s Sunday Morning here.

Read ‘Synthetic cannabis: The killer high’ here.