‘Bath salts’ are one of the designer drugs consumed widely in Australia. Indeed, our consumption of party drugs places us among the top four of countries surveyed by a new academic study.
The Netherlands – followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States – are consuming the highest amounts of designer ‘party’ drugs, according to wastewater (sewage) samples taken from eight countries over the New Year period.
Despite deaths and hospitalisations linked to many new psychoactive substances (known as NPS), an international study led by the University of South Australia shows just how prevalent ‘party pills’ and ‘bath salts’ are in different parts of the world.
Designed to mimic established illicit drugs
New psychoactive substances (NPS) are a range of drugs that have been designed to mimic established illicit drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and LSD.
In a new paper published in the journal Water Research, what is claimed to be the world’s most comprehensive wastewater analysis of NPS shows the pattern of designer drug use in the 2019-2020 New Year in 14 sites across Australia, New Zealand, China, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Norway and the United States.
University of SA analytical chemist Dr Richard Bade said samples were collected over the New Year in each country and shipped to South Australia for analysis. More than 200 synthetic drugs across all countries were monitored and 16 substances found.
“Of the eight countries studied, only Norway showed no traces of NPS,” he explained.
Australia recorded the second highest usage
“The Netherlands recorded the highest usage, followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Spain, Italy and China had the lowest incidence of designer drug use in cities participating in the study.”
N-ethylpentylone, which is known to cause fatalities, was seen in Australia, New Zealand and the US. It has previously been detected in forensic samples and at music festivals in Australia and New Zealand.
Another designer drug called mephedrone (often referred to as drone, M-CAT, White Magic and meow meow), was found only in Australia and New Zealand, with the latter country recording a 20-fold spike in usage on New Year’s Eve.
“It is a very powerful drug that produces effects similar to those of cocaine and MDMA and is popular among ecstasy and stimulant users in Australia and NZ,” Dr Bade said.
Warnings over newer drug known as eutylone
The Netherlands recorded traces of six of 10 quantifiable drugs. Seven additional recreational drugs were also identified in the samples after screening. Of these, ketamine (a human and veterinary anaesthetic) and its metabolite, norketamine, were found in every country.
A newer drug on the market – eutylone – was seen in Australia, New Zealand, the US and The Netherlands. Warnings were issued in 2020 that this designer drug was being incorrectly marketed as MDMA in New Zealand due to its visual similarity to the latter. High doses of it have been linked to intense and particularly dangerous side effects.
Traces of mitragynine, a drug involved in almost half of NPS-related deaths in 2019, were found only in the United States.
“What makes the NPS so dangerous is that they were originally sold as legal alternatives to conventional illicit drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis, suggesting they were safe when, in fact, there was very little information about their toxicity,” Dr Bade said.