Sewage samples reveal Dutch and Australians are heaviest users of synthetic drugs
Do you remember New Year 2020? That old time when 2020 was still something to look forward to, shots meant tequila not vaccine shots, and drugs didn’t necessarily mean the kinds you need to defeat a deadly virus during a global pandemic.
Wastewater samples taken from eight countries over the same period showed just how popular designer drugs have become. In a new article published in Water Research, the world’s most comprehensive sewage analysis for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) shows the pattern of designer drug use in 14 locations in Australia, New Zealand, China, Netherlands, Spain , Italy, Norway and the United States. This study was conducted over the 2019-2020 New Year period, which the researchers identified as “a period characterized by celebrations and parties and therefore a time when more NPS can be consumed”.
These synthetic synthetic drugs are made entirely in the lab and often mimic the effects of herbal drugs, but are instead mass-produced in chemical factories, marketed online, and often smuggled through the global postal system. While artificial highs include well-known banned substances such as methamphetamine, MDMA, LSD and ketamine, a wide range of NPS includes synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids, black market drugs such as fentanyl and tranquilizers. , as well as dangerous or unclean analogues and substitutes of the above.
As part of this sewage study, more than 200 synthetic drugs were monitored across all countries and 16 substances were found in the samples which were sent to Adelaide for analysis by researchers from the University of Australia of the South (UniSA). These substances included the synthetic opioid acetyl fentanyl and mephedrone, often referred to as M-CAT, White Magic or meow meow.
Wastewater-based epidemiology is known to have the potential to monitor trends in illicit drug use at the population level in near real time. When someone takes a drug, the body metabolizes it and excretes metabolites. By sampling sewage, scientists can determine the amount of drugs used in a community from measured levels of drugs and their metabolites excreted in urine.
Other substances included N-ethylpentylone, which would gain popularity at music festivals in Australia and New Zealand, and a new substance called eutylone, known to be mistakenly sold as MDMA in New Zealand in because of the visible similarities between the two. It is also known to cause particularly dangerous side effects when consumed in high doses.
“Of the eight countries studied, only Norway showed no trace of NPS,” said UniSA analytical chemist Dr. Richard Bade.
According to the results, the Netherlands recorded the highest use of these substances, with six out of ten quantifiable drugs found in samples from the country, followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Spain, Italy and China had the lowest incidence of designer drug use in the cities that participated in the study.
Mephedrone was only found in samples from Australia and New Zealand, the latter of which saw a 20-fold increase in use on New Year’s Eve. “It’s a very powerful drug that produces effects similar to those cocaine and MDMA and is popular among ecstasy and stimulant users in Australia and New Zealand,” Bade said.
Seven additional recreational drugs were also identified in post-screening samples, including ketamine, which was found in all countries. Methcathinone was detected in seven out of eight countries, followed by N-ethylpentylone and 3-MMC, which were detected in three countries each.
The American samples were distinguished by traces of mitragynine, a drug banned in several American states because it is deadly. Another synthetic opioid, acetyl fentanyl, was also restricted to US sewage samples. This drug was known to have killed half of the people who died of opioid overdoses in 2016 in the United States
“What makes 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 while in In fact, there was very little information on their toxicity,” Bade said.
Governments quickly stepped in with restrictions and bans on their production and use once hospitalizations and deaths associated with their use began to come to light, with many even enforcing blanket bans. The Australian Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 phased out the possession and supply of synthetic drugs and their derivatives as soon as they appeared. In 2020, the Netherlands also proposed a bill that would criminalize the possession of synthetic drugs and the raw materials used to make them, making it possible to ban an entire group of synthetic drugs in one fell swoop.
“However, despite these bans, NPS are still being synthesized, transported and consumed across the globe, often with fatal consequences,” Bade added. In 2019, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug-related overdoses, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids, a staggering figure that is expected to have increased further due to the ongoing pandemic.
In 2012, then-US President Barack Obama signed into law a synthetic drug ban, which would have become obsolete before it could even take effect, as drug formulations not covered by its wording were put on sale almost immediately. Given the wide range of possible chemistries to formulate such substances, the prohibition of certain chemical structures can easily be circumvented using molecular recombinations.
With this survey, Bade hopes the sewage samples will help supplement existing hospital, legal and forensic data, as well as global surveys, to identify the most dangerous designer drugs.
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