New Zealand is “grossly underprepared” for the arrival of fentanyl, experts say, after the deadly drug was discovered circulating in the community for the first time, causing a string of overdoses.
Twelve people were hospitalised or required urgent medical care in the Wairarapa region this weekend, after accidentally overdosing on fentanyl that had been sold as cocaine. Police said it marked the first time that the powdered drug had been found circulating in the New Zealand drug market.
So far, New Zealand has escaped the toll of fentanyl, a highly dangerous synthetic opioid that kills tens of thousands of people in the US every year. Its arrival highlights that the country lacks crucial protections against overdose, says Sarah Helm, executive director of drug research and advocacy organisation the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Those protections include access to fentanyl testing strips or Naloxone, a treatment which can reverse opioid overdose and is now widely available in the US. Naloxone is not publicly funded in New Zealand, is prescription-only, and costs about $92 for a single-use kit.
“New Zealand is grossly underprepared for a fentanyl outbreak because, in particular, of lack of overdose prevention measures – including access to Naloxone,” Helm said.
“If this indeed turned into a fentanyl adulteration of our drug supply, we don’t have the tools in place to help prevent overdose. … It’s a miracle that those dozen people have survived the overdose and that we actually had Naloxone to be able to respond to them.”
Police say that of the patients who overdosed this weekend, at least six were unconscious and in serious condition when emergency services arrived. Several were classed by ambulance staff as being “status one,” or critical condition.
Detective inspector Blair Macdonald, manager of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau, said that New Zealand police did not have their own supplies of Naloxone, and had relied on non-profit NZ Drug Foundation for a donation of the kits to use in case of further overdoses in the region.
Helm said there was only one New Zealand retailer selling fentanyl testing strips, and that the country’s two non-profit providers – NZ Drug and the Needle Exchange – only had around 1000 testing strips between them.
Macdonald said police had been brought into the area from other cities to investigate the drug’s possible source. He said it was too early to know how widespread the drug could be in the community, and urged anyone who may have bought drugs – particularly what they believed to be cocaine – to have them tested. Drug testing is legal in New Zealand.
“We’re very concerned,” he said. “This is a dangerous drug. It is responsible for killing literally hundreds of thousands of people in America … The dose rate between synthetic opioids and cocaine is stark. We’re talking a few grains of salt can be the equivalent of an appropriate dose or an overdose.”
Over time, NZ Drug Foundation expected contamination of drugs with fentanyl to increase, Helm said. It was “safe to presume that in coming years we will only see a proliferation of adulterated drug supply,” she said.
Fentanyl has been detected in the country once before, by a drug testing agency, in a sample of heroin in 2018.
A record high of 107,622 people died of drug overdoses in the US in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The surge in deaths was fuelled primarily by fentanyl, which accounted for about 70% of fatalities.