More than 800 new drugs have infiltrated the Australian illicit drug market in the last 15 years, with doctors warning most of their users do not know they have taken them.
The drugs are referred to as new psychoactive substances and are created to mimic the effects of traditional drugs.
In 2015, the Western Australian state government banned the manufacture, promotion, sale and supply of psychoactive substances to limit their harm to people.
Edith Cowan University senior lecturer in addiction Stephen Bright said before this the government couldn’t stay ahead of the dealers and manufacturers.
“Each time a ban came into place, almost immediately new drugs would emerge outside of what’s just been banned,” Dr Bright said.
“It led to not only more drugs emerging, but some of my research indicates the drugs emerging are more harmful than the drugs just banned.”
According to Dr Bright, many of these drugs are still legal and cheap to produce in China and India, meaning they can be manufactured in those countries and sent to Australia.
“In Western Australia, they’re all illegal, but the cost at the source is much less, which is why NPS are attractive to bring in to the traditional drug market,” Dr Bright said.
Royal Perth Hospital emergency physician David McCutcheon has been conducting a study into the effects of NPS since he worked a night shift on New Year’s Eve more than five years ago.
“We had person after person come into the emergency department who were quite unwell and had taken some sort of drug – we couldn’t work out what it was,” Dr McCutcheon said.
“As doctors, we want to know what these drugs are and what they do so we can inform people.”
In Dr McCutcheon’s study he refers to a popular NPS called 25I-NBOMe, or NBOMB, a drug which mimics LSD and MDMA.
“Sixteen patients at Royal Perth all thought they were taking MDMA, but they were actually taking NBOMB,” Dr McCutcheon said.
“Over the summer of 2016-17 there were many deaths around the country; there were seven in Victoria, one on the Gold Coast and at least one in Western Australia all from taking NBOMB.”
RMIT University senior research fellow in social and global studies Monica Barratt believes drug testing services need to be seriously looked at, especially at festivals.
“You’re working within a system where the supply is unregulated, but drug checking and pill testing can be a response to this problem,” Dr Barratt said.
“Most NPS use at festivals is unknowing use.”
She said counselling services at these checking services were equally important.
“With a drug checking service on site at a festival, it provides an opportunity for someone to talk to a trained counsellor,” Dr Barratt said.
“We find a lot of people won’t go and get the counselling on their own, the test of the drugs brings them in and provides them with tailored information which is relevant for them.”