Synthetic drug users: Guinea pigs in someone else's science experiment
Synthetic drugs are killing people throughout New Zealand and now a small Manawatū town has hit crisis point. Reporter Sam Kilmister investigates the dangers and trials of a community in disorder.
It was 11.15pm when she was woken by two children, aged 5 and 9, screaming for help.
As she ran through her neighbour's door she was confronted with a man lying face down, unresponsive and surrounded in vomit.
In a panic, she called an ambulance. Operators told her to put the man in the recovery position and unblock his airways.
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"It was disgusting. I didn't want vomit on me. I was just so angry," she says.
The man was taken to hospital, only to be discharged hours later. Later that night, he was back on the glass barbie, smoking synthetic drugs until passing out.
The Manawatū woman who walked in on the aftermath of her neighbour taking a potent concoction of synthetic drugs says the sight made her sick to the stomach.
It's become an all-too-frequent occurrence for this Feilding woman, who requested not to be named. She lives in a block of flats where residents regularly take synthetic drugs until they pass out.
In the latest incident, she says a group of people "spaced out" on synthetic drugs better resembled the cast from The Walking Dead as opposed to functional members of society.
The children who woke her live in the house, where the pernicious effects of the drug often has their caregivers looking like zombies.
"If they don't take this stuff then they're punching holes in walls or chasing each other up and down the street," the neighbour said.
"It's bad in my neighbourhood. It's been bad since November."
People would show up and then quickly drop to the ground, flop over hoods of cars, or crumple on to the sidewalk.
"They all seemed oblivious to their surroundings and just couldn't stay on their feet."
Sometimes, there's up to a dozen of them.
Feilding is a victim in the war against synthetic drugs.
People from all walks of like are becoming hooked on an ever-changing drug and it's killing people in unprecedented numbers.
A public meeting ordered by mayor Helen Worboys has put the community on a path to recovery, after a sorrowful night on September 7 led to the death of 21-year-old user Bradley James Wahanui.
That night, three others in the town were also taken to hospital because of the drugs' ill-effects.
The facts are chilling.
Since June, at least 12 have died in Auckland, Rotorua and Feilding, and dozens of others have been hospitalised.
Ambulances have responded to more than 750 incidents related to synthetic drugs since July, nationwide.
The Office of the Chief Coroner has about 20 cases under review where synthetic drugs are a possible cause of death.
Since April, more than 150 packets of the illegal drug have been seized from Feilding homes.
Most of the victims are Māori or Pasifika and from the margins of society – the homeless, mentally ill and unemployed – and there seems to have been a muted response to the crisis from the Government and the public.
Why do people continue to use it, knowing how dangerous it can be?
It's cheap, easily accessible and takes users far away from the hopelessness of their lives, Te Manawa Family Services counsellor Margaret Atherton says.
People are dying for a $20 hit. "Our lives are worth more than $20."
As a counsellor in Horowhenua she discovered the effects of synthetic drugs several years ago.
It was there she met three young men – one ended up in a mental health facility and one went to jail – as she watched them fall out with their whanau.
"People usually take these drugs to numb how their life is going," Atherton says.
"It's very important we don't have kids on the street with nothing to do, because they then go looking for things to do. That's when they get into drugs and get high."
Manchester House support worker Robyn Duncan recalls working with a 22-year-old Feilding woman in 2013. She aspired to become a police officer, but became addicted to legal highs.
In June, she died in a suspected suicide.
"Her addiction from 2013 she could never get rid of. Her parents believe it is the drugs that caused her to take her life."
WHAT ARE SYNTHETICS?
Synthetic drugs contain man-made chemicals that act on the same cell receptors in the brain as natural cannabis. Although, the synthetic chemicals can bind much more strongly to cell receptors.
These chemicals are sprayed or soaked into a plant, which is dried and then smoked, MidCentral District Health Board health promotion adviser Martin Macmaster says.
That's why the drug is sometimes misleadingly referred to as synthetic cannabis, he says.
It produces stronger effects, such as an elevated mood or feeling of relaxation. But, more recently, the drug has become synonymous with psychotic effects, which can include extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia and even hallucinations.
This is down to it being crudely manufactured and often imported and mixed with several unknown chemicals, Mcmaster says.
"You're just like a guinea pig in someone's science experiment," he says. "You don't know what's going to happen until after."
Macmaster says the chemicals were 75 times more potent than cannabis and, in the past six months, police have seized six kilograms of base chemicals.
"That's enough to make 120kg of product and you don't even have to invest in science equipment."
A $300 start up could return more than $10,000, he says.
Feilding man Don James feared for his wife's life as his two sons repeatedly struck out during their recovery from synthetic drug use.
James can't recall the amount of times he was thrown against the wall or number of holes punched around the house.
He was frightened the boys would redirect their anger to his wife Tina, who has Huntington's Disease.
An inherited condition in which nerve cells in the brain break down over time, James says the condition was largely responsible for why eldest son Rowan, 23, turned to synthetic drugs.
"It was the stress of potentially inheriting that. He's a 50-50 chance of getting it."
Rowan James displayed all the signs – hanging around the wrong crowd, asking for money, aggressive behaviour. Despite that, Don and Tina James never gave up hope. They tried Te Manawa Family Services and talked openly to the boys about their struggles.
The bottom line? For two years, the boys didn't want to shake their addiction.
Don James remembers the first time he walked in on Rowan passed out.
"I went into the garage and I saw him with a bong, sprawled out along the ground, and I knew it couldn't have been [natural cannabis]."
Paramedics resuscitated him in the driveway as he begun convulsing violently. It took two police officers to stop him from "thrashing about".
"It definitely rewires the brain, but it's more than that. The anxiety starts to kick in.
"I was afraid one of them was going to belt their mother."
It hurt Don James to see his sons waste their lives. They should have been looking to their futures, finding a job, but all that goes to the wayside when it becomes all about finding the next hit.
It came to a head last month, when Rowan was one of three hospitalised and Wahanui, his mate, died.
Rowan's brush with death has finally changed him, Duncan says.
"I said to him 'what would you say if I offered you some right now, Rowan?'. He said: 'I'd tell you to f... off because I don't want to die'."
WHERE TO GET HELP
Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.