There are fears this summer could be the deadliest yet for Australian ‘party drug’ takers, with hundreds of new and unpredictable substances on the market.
The warnings come after 16 people were hospitalised on the Gold Coast last month, with Victorian footballer Riki Stephens dying after wild hallucinations and bizarre behaviour.
Police said toxicology results indicated Mr Stephens had taken a drug that was a cocktail of MDMA and a synthetic version of LSD is known as ‘N Bomb’ or ‘N-BOMe’.
A Brisbane woman has now told the ABC of horrifying hallucinations from what she believed was the same or a similar drug.
Jessica (not her real name) said she bought what she was told was LSD, just as she had many times before.
“It’s always been very light-hearted — it’s always been very fun, mind-expanding,” she said.
But last month — the same week as the Gold Coast overdose cluster — Jessica had a similar experience.
“I was terrified — I didn’t know who I was anymore, I couldn’t ground myself in reality,” she said.
For six hours she had terrifying hallucinations until she eventually lost the ability to see anything around her.
“I could see inside of my mind and I saw it sort of imploding, then it split apart and I thought: ‘I have completely lost my mind’,” Jessica said.
She believed she had lost control of her mind and her faculties permanently.
Jessica said she had bought what she thought was LSD or acid from the same person she had bought it from for about 10 years.
But she believed she was given something far stronger than what she had experienced previously.
More than 100 new substances in a year
Toxicologist Andrew Leibie, from Safework Laboratories, has been tracking the emergence of new drugs known as Novel Psychoactive Substances, or NPS’s, so he can test for them.
What is flakka?
- Also known as gravel, has the active ingredient a-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone
- Closely related to bath salts, it is a chemical compound originally synthesised in the 1960s
- Simulates the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine without the price tag
- It was linked to the infamous face-eating attack in Miami, US, four years ago
“These types of drugs, N-BOMe compound flakka, have the potential to be causing deaths in Australia in the order of several dozen per year,” he said.
He said European authorities had found more than 100 new substances in the past year.
“That’s in the order of several a week — new compounds that we have not yet seen. Distressingly some of these have been identified for the first time at post-mortem,” Mr Leibie said.
He said the last European summer saw a spike in overdoses and death from new drugs being developed there by chemists who altered the chemical structure of existing drugs, to see what kind of effect they could produce.
Dr Peter Culshaw, from Queensland’s Forensic Services Lab, said there had been about 200 new substances found in Queensland alone over the past few years.
“In a large majority of cases we’ve no idea of the health effects of these materials,” he said.
“Especially as some of these new drugs are very, very potent and in their pure state can very easily cause an overdose.”
Mr Leibie said the big problem was there was no way of knowing what was in some drugs.
“Sometimes they are sold as ecstasy substitutes, sometimes they’re sold as legal highs,” Mr Leibie said.
Queensland Health spokesman Dr Adam Griffin said the drugs overloaded the body and the brain so people were unaware their body was in distress.
“The substances themselves may be in microgram quantities, very small quantities, but their potency is such that they can have a massive effect on the system,” Dr Griffin said.
“A minimal change in dose, microscopic change in substances, can make a massive change in physiology with these very potent substances.”
World-wide problem to keep up
While some doctors advocate for pill testing at festivals, Dr Griffin said it was not possible to say what might be in a pill because there were so many new drugs that were not necessarily identifiable.
Is DIY pill testing better than nothing?
With the latest spate of overdoses in Queensland, attention has inevitably turned again to the issue of “pill testing”, to inform drug users of the substances they’re ingesting.
Mr Leibie said those pills escaped the usual drug tests.
“It can take several days to several weeks to positively identify what the drug is and how to treat it,” he said.
It also remains a world-wide problem for law enforcement, as jurisdictions struggle to keep up with the emergence of so many previously unseen chemicals and lawmakers find it hard to write legislation that makes drugs illegal before they were discovered.
Dr Culshaw said it was hard to legislate against these very rapidly emerging drugs.
“Because they emerge [and] then by the time we try to control them, they vanish off the market and a new drug comes on board,” Dr Culshaw said.
Jessica believes what she took might have been one of the new, highly dangerous chemicals.
“I think whatever it was [it] was far stronger than anything we’ve ever seen here in Australia before,” she said.
Ecstasy hospital presentations double
Four Corners reports on building pressure for the Government to rethink its tough stance on party drugs.
Dr Griffin said the symptoms Jessica experienced were similar to those seen in patients who had ingested the NSP’s.
“It may well be explained by one of these Novel Psychoactive Substances, including the N-BOMe’s, and particularly if there are other active substances present at the same time,” he said.
For Jessica, her experience terrified her and changed her perspective on “experimenting” with so-called party drugs.
“I would warn anyone who was thinking of taking this — not to,” she said.
“In the past, I never would have said that [it’s] not worth it, to sacrifice your sanity, for a good time.”
Topics: drug-use, health, drug-education, education, drugs-and-substance-abuse, community-and-society, drug-offences,brisbane-4000, qld, australia, southport-4215, vic
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