Scroll on Drugs – More Than Weed in the Garden City

Naomi Darvill, Jenna Martin & Kate McVicar

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Growing up in New Zealand, we were told to “just say no” to alcohol and drugs, but with the country having one of the worst binge drinking cultures in the world and a $500 million drug market, it is clear we didn’t listen to this forewarning.  

This image was sent to us by a local drug dealer. These are his best sellers among the young people of Christchurch.

Media reports on a series of deaths and hospitalisations from tampered and synthetic drug usage has created a highly negative stigma surrounding narcotics in New Zealand.  This spurred us to explore the drug culture of young people in Christchurch to gain more insight into the selection, accessibility and the risks associated with drugs.

SCROLL on Drugs is a series that endeavours to uncover Christchurch’s narcotic culture as it is seen by individuals from all sides and with different perspectives.  We’ll be talking to law enforcement, medical professionals, bouncers, bartenders and the community to expose the highs, the lows and everything in between.

The following article begins our explorative series.

The Facts

  • The Canterbury District has the highest MDMA and ecstasy use in New Zealand, closely followed by the Southern District (Southland).  
  • According to the 2018 Global Drug Survey, the most common way of obtaining MDMA is through friends, followed by dealers known to the person and through friends of friends.
  • Synthetic drugs (often synthetic cannabinoids) are developed from man-made chemicals and have been linked to a number of hospitalisations and deaths in the Canterbury region.  Nineteen people were admitted to hospital in the space of two weeks between September and October of 2018.
  • The NZ Police conducted nationwide wastewater tests from November 2018 to January 2019 in order to measure the prevalence of drugs in 80% of the population.
Acid/LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a hallucinogenic drug. Usually taken orally on absorbent paper.

The Figures

3,223 people from New Zealand participated in the Global Drug Survey of 2018:

  • Only 16.7% of New Zealand MDMA users regularly ‘test’ a new batch.  This is low internationally, placing just above Russia’s 16.6%.
  • New Zealand has the highest mean price for MDMA tablets globally, and the most expensive cocaine (at the equivalent of €217 per gram).
MDMA is the most popular party drug in New Zealand. It’s commonly sold in crystal, capsule (cap) or powder form and its purity varies dramatically.

Results of the NZ Police wastewater tests:

  • Put methamphetamine at the top of the national usage chart, with “approximately 16kgs consumed on average each week”.  
  • With a comparatively low detection rate in New Zealand’s wastewater it can be assumed that cocaine consumption is much less common.  However, usage is “significantly more prevalent in the Auckland region (per capita)”.
  • The opioid fentanyl was tested at low levels, however as it’s been tested for more recently, conclusions on its use remain undetermined.
  • Heroin was not detected at any of the national testing sites, confirming the knowledge of the New Zealand Police that injection levels are low in this country.

The Feelings

Judging from the nature of their pick-ups, users of MDMA place a lot of emphasis on people they know and can trust, or people who their friends trust.

  • While trustworthiness could be a good first layer of defence, free testing would significantly reduce the risks associated with unknown substances.  Services are being set up at popular festivals and events that allow people the opportunity to test what is in their drugs and tablets. Organisations such as the Otago University Student’s Association have embraced this resource and provided it at their orientation week, stating: “students are going to do it regardless, better to make sure it is safe”. From those that had found an unknown substance, more than half stated that they would no longer use it.
  • The ‘Needle Exchange Programis another Kiwi organisation advocating for and supporting the safe use of drugs.  In their nationwide work, they allow service users to exchange used or dirty needles with clean ones, aiming to reduce the rate of HIV and other bloodborne viruses associated with injecting.  The global prevalence rates of HIV among this group stands at 13%, compared to a New Zealand average of 0.2%.
  • Along with the cannabis referendum of 2020, it appears that the country acknowledges drug use among its population.  
This pressed pill (pressie) is usually sold as ecstasy or MDMA.

Drugs. It seems to be a topic that everyone has an opinion on.  But in a small part of the Western world where theWar on Drugs has failed, big powers and their ideologies appear to have lost their sway. For us, running with a crowd of young people in and out of the ‘partying scene’, we are filled with conflicting ideas around illicit substances and are fuelled by a desire to find more facts than feelings.