At least 20 people have died after smoking synthetic cannabis, but where is the community outrage and Government action plan?

In part one of a two-part series, we reveal the human toll of a killer drug.

Anika used to enjoy making art, before she became a slave to synthetic cannabis.

Then all she cared about was finding money to buy "synnies".

She's only 21, yet death stalked her.

"Every time I took a hit I wondered, is this the one that's going to kill me?"

She told herself all the time that today she'd quit.

"Then I'd see someone smoking it and I needed to do it - I couldn't help it."

We followed Anika and her friends as they begged for money at Auckland intersections so they could buy synthetics.

Anika craves a normal life.

Anika craves a normal life.

They let us into their world because they want people to understand what a destructive, all-consuming drug it is.

Anika has now checked herself into a medical detox centre and is determined to stay clean and get her life back on track.

Her friend, Michael, says: "I describe it as a zombie drug because the actual description of a zombie is the walking dead - they die, get up and they start hunting food."

Anika feels trapped by her addiction.

Anika feels trapped by her addiction.

This is the horrifying reality for New Zealanders who've become hooked on a pernicious, ever-changing drug that is killing people in unprecedented numbers.

Since June at least 12 have died - in Auckland, Rotorua and Feilding - and dozens of others have been hospitalised.

In total, coroners are looking at about 20 deaths.

St John Ambulance says at the peak of the epidemic in July a staggering 30 people a day were being treated - that's levelled off but is still sitting at about 40 a week throughout the country.

Most of the victims were 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 Government and the public.

"I wonder if we had 20 kids from wealthy families dying in a very short amount of time what the response would be," says Ross Bell, executive director of the Drug Foundation.

"My gut tells me we'd have a national response...resources and information would flow really quickly. There's a shameful indifference on the Government's part."

Those who've died include a politician's nephew who was found in a law firm's carpark; a homeless man found dead on the steps of a church in South Auckland and a 17-year-old West Auckland teen who'd only recently started using.

Just this month 21-year-old Bradley Wahanui died and four others were taken to hospital after smoking synthetics in Feilding.

Devonte Pierce, right, was one of the victims.

Devonte Pierce, right, was one of the victims.

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.

Our investigation has found that a super-strength batch of a notorious synthetic cannabinoid may be to blame for some of the casualties.

AMB-Fubinaca cropped up here about a year ago, having already made headlines in New York, where users were collapsing in the street and behaving like "zombies".

New York becomes "zombieland".
PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

They'd reportedly taken a substance known as AK-47 24 Karat Gold, marketed as "herbal incense".

Tests found it was 85 times more potent than the main agent in natural cannabis, THC.

What’s terrifying is that tests have shown that synthetic cannabis currently on the streets in New Zealand contains concentrations of AMB-Fubinaca up to 30 times stronger than the product which caused the New York “zombie” outbreak.

We sent a sample of synthetics from West Auckland, to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) for testing.

The results showed it contained AMB-Fubinaca, as well as pFPP, an original party pill ingredient.

The concentration of AMB-Fubinaca averaged 36 milligrams per gram of plant material, about twice that of the New York product.

Kevan Walsh, the ESR's forensic chemistry manager, says some tests have been as high as 400mg.

“Whether that’s what’s killing people or not...you join the dots.”

There are hundreds of different cannabinoids - many of them developed for research and never intended for human consumption - which manufacturers can choose from each time countries outlaw a certain compound.

Chemical companies sell them in bulk online to licensed buyers, while rogue chemists in China provide most of the illicit product.

Police sources say people are bringing in relatively small amounts through the mail, making it difficult to detect.

In South Auckland, the Mongrel Mob is said to be involved in the trade.

The chemicals are dissolved and sprayed on plant material, usually a leaf called damiana.

Experts say when people react badly - erratic behaviour, seizures, increased heart rate - it's most likely a dosage problem rather than some unknown chemical or toxicant.

Cannabinoids are very strong and if the substance isn't sprayed evenly onto the leaf material, some batches can end up being especially potent.

Word on the street that is that all sorts of things are being used - a theory fuelled by police who claim "intelligence" shows weed killer, fly spray and even rat poison is being added to the mix.

That appears to be urban myth - Walsh says that on rare occasions they've detected insecticides but not in doses strong enough to be fatal.

"Dosage has got to be a big factor [in the deaths]," Walsh says. "The way these things are manufactured is not well controlled."

Matt Bowden, the original "Godfather" of party pills who now lives in Thailand, says this is exactly what you get with a black market.

Matt Bowden speaks from "exile".

If the mothballed Psychoactive Substances Act had been allowed to work, he says, the deaths could have been avoided.

"My company had a team of highly qualified chemists who designed our own molecules, hundreds and hundreds of them and chose the safest ones.

"Over 17 years, with tens of millions of exposures to our products, we had zero deaths or lasting injuries."

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Bowden says the chemicals being imported from China are only going to get more dangerous, and he fears synthetic opiates, which are killing record numbers in the US, could be the next wave.

The recent cluster of synthetic cannabis deaths made headlines but our investigations have found other cases that went under the radar.

Using the Official Information Act, we discovered that coroners are investigating several other deaths potentially relating to the drug going back to 2012.

But coronial services can't put an exact number on the deaths because of the complexity of identifying the substances involved - they break down quickly in the body.

For example, Hamilton man Toa Tuau collapsed and died after smoking two or three "cones" of synthetic cannabis at a friend's house in July last year.

Coroner Michael Robb found Tuau died of unknown causes "in a background of consumption of synthetic cannabis".

Toa Tuau

Toa Tuau

Tuau had been living at the mental health facility Emerge Aotearoa and staff were concerned about his use of synthetics.

He'd been rushed to hospital after falling unconscious before.

Robb's report says the ESR detected Tuau's prescribed medication, but found no trace of the synthetic cannabis he'd consumed.

ESR told the coroner there were dozens of different synthetic cannabinoids that couldn't be picked up by its testing processes. (Walsh says testing capability has improved significantly in the past year.)

Robb concluded that because it was uncertain how much of a role synthetic cannabis played in the death, he was unable to make any recommendations.

No warnings were issued and it would be another year before chief coroner Deborah Marshall issued a public warning after being alerted to the Auckland deaths.

Toa’s brother, Hone Tuau, says his brother had a tough life but was living with family and going to church before he slipped into synthetic cannabis addiction, at which point his behaviour changed drastically.

Hone says they are related to Wahanui, the Feilding man who died, and he’s gutted that Toa’s death didn’t prevent the loss of another whanau member.

“They could have done something about it back then, but no, let’s just wait until more people die.”

Meanwhile, the carnage continues. In August, ambulance staff in Rotorua were run off their feet when people who'd consumed a bad batch of synthetics began vomiting, behaving erratically and losing consciousness.

They treated 15 people across the city in one day.

How the Rotorua Post covered the chaos.

How the Rotorua Post covered the chaos.

One of the Rotorua incidents highlights how synthetic cannabis can destroy whole families.

It began with a car stopped in the middle of the road, its young driver slumped over the wheel.

Other motorists tried to rouse him, but he started fighting them and police were called. By this stage he was having seizures and was taken to hospital.

He was released, but later that day he and his brother were found in a car outside their house, vomiting.

During the early hours of the following morning an ambulance was called back to the address - the brothers' 44-year-old father had collapsed in their garage. He could not be revived and was later pronounced dead.

The garage where the 44-year-old father died.

Police inquiries found that the siblings and their father - who suffered from bipolar disorder - had had no fewer than eight sessions on synthetic cannabis over seven hours.

And a further shock - they admitted they'd drizzled their grandfather's nitroglycerin angina medication on the synthetic cannabis before smoking it.

The coroner is making further inquiries.

We spoke to one of the brothers by the garage where his father died.

He described how his dad was alone at the time and fell off his chair, hitting his head on the ground.

"He had a bit of health problems, he was always depressed. I've stopped smoking synnies since he passed, I go to work now. I was gutted what happened to him."

In the aftermath of the Rotorua episodes, a 24-year-old woman appeared in court charged with child neglect.

In a rare move, police are essentially accusing her of getting so wasted on synthetic cannabis that she needed emergency treatment and couldn't look after the two children in her care.

She faces a maximum jail term of 10 years.

The carnage infuriates Dr Geoff Noller, a Dunedin-based independent drug researcher.

"It's incredibly frustrating because we actually had legislation in place that would have prevented these deaths," he says, referring to the Psychoactive Substances Act.

The Act, introduced in 2013, was working quite well by weeding out the more harmful substances, he says, with reports showing a drop-off in emergency psychiatric admissions.

The biggest failure, Noller says, is that the tiny Ministry of Health team working to implement the regulations was severely under-resourced, with no support or back-up.

Then in 2014, politicians bowed to public alarm at queues outside the few remaining licensed stores, and removed all exemptions which were allowing a limited number of products.

"I lay these deaths at the feet of those gutless politicians who instead of... allowing the regulators to do their job...pulled the pin on it to get a few votes."

Bell, of the Drug Foundation, has been unimpressed with the response to the deaths.

He's especially concerned that police and the coroner have "sat" on ESR test results that could help provide information that could save lives.

Their reason for that is that the information could be used as evidence, and the coroners' inquiries have to be completed, but Bell doesn't believe that's good enough.

Work began in Auckland in June on an early warning system to recognise dangerous drugs, and the Ministry of Health has formed an expert advisory group, but Bell says a multi-agency national response plan is needed.

This should include rapid identification of the substance and sharing of that information to agencies including frontline social service providers and ambulance services.

"I really hope the community reflects on what happened - 20 deaths is unheard of.

"We've not seen this in New Zealand before or around the world before. Something different is happening and we've decided to deal with this in a really unsophisticated way."

Chris Cahill, president of the Police Association, is another who wants to see a co-ordinated, national action plan.

Chris Cahill

"I can't think of anything else in the history of New Zealand drugs, certainly in this timeframe, that's killed so many people.

"It's ridiculous. Yet there doesn't seem to be a great public outcry around it. I think it's a reflection on the poor people who are dying."

"To me, this is an issue where you needed multiple government departments to come together."

National announced during the election campaign that it will increase penalties for distributing synthetic cannabis from a maximum of two years' imprisonment to eight, but Labour's former leader Andrew Little says the entire Act needs to be revisited and more money pumped into treatment services.

Little says politicians "kidded ourselves" that removing the products from shops was taking care of the problem, when really it only drove it underground.

"It's Third World stuff to have products available on the black market doing this to people - we've got to take back control of this.

"Everything seemed to be quickly shunted off to the coroners court ...I think 20 deaths...justifies a bigger inquiry."

While experts argue over what to do next, Anika and Michael are just trying to survive.

Anika had a child at 16 but chooses not to see her because of her situation.

She started smoking synthetics at 17, when she was living with a caregiver in West Auckland.

"He was looking after these mixed-up transsexuals from Karangahape Rd and he offered me this stuff from a mint tin.

"And I was like this stuff is strong as! I can't see! I was buzzing out."

Synthetics offer oblivion, a way of numbing out the hopelessness of living on the street.
"I just want something for my anxiety, a pill or something. I'm not calm and I want to be," Anika says.

She and Michael have noticed that synnies have become stronger and stronger.

A police sergeant working with Anika warned her she was unlikely to live much longer if she stayed in the same environment.

Michael was introduced to synthetic cannabis by a friend in this first year of high school. At first he wasn't convinced, skeptical a product bought at the dairy would have any impact.

But it gave him an intense high, far stronger than any cannabis he'd smoked before.

Synthetics were cheaper and one bag produced more joints than a tinnie of weed. Michael quickly calculated he'd be able to make a bigger profit by selling synthetics.

"At that stage it was crap tonnes of fun. I was making a lot of money for a 14-year-old, smoking a lot of synthetics, drinking alcohol, meeting girls."

His drug use escalated and he became aggressive, eventually ending up in rehab after a violent incident with his mother. He spent two years at a residential programme run by Odyssey House.

But after his treatment it didn't take long for old habits to creep back and for synthetics to rule his life again.

It helps him sleep properly when he's on the street.

"It knocks me out so I don't worry about what people do to me."

The pair had been staying at a two-bedroom state house in Auckland's Waterview after the owner took Michael in as a favour to a friend.

There were two single mattresses in the centre of the main room and the wallpaper had been stripped bare.

On a typical morning the detritus of a synnie session littered the room - including a plastic bottle they'd used as a bong floating in a bucket of water.

The landlady wanted them gone because of their drug use.

Anika's thinks about what life could be like without synthetics.

She wants something better.

"I want a house. I want my boyfriend to live longer, I want to see Michael have his life going on with a job."

Where to get help:

Alcohol Drug Helpline - 0800 787 797

Community Alcohol & Drug Services (CADS) - www.cads.org.nz

Wildside Trust - www.wildsidetrust.org

CareNZ - www.carenz.co.nz

Drughelp - www.drughelp.org.nz

Narcotics Anonymous - www.nzna.org

Salvation Army - 0800 53 00 00

Words
Tony Wall and Helen King

Further reporting
Michelle Duff

Visuals
Chris Skelton and Kevin Stent

Editor
Tony Wall

Producer/designer
Aaron Wood