Flushing out
drug trends

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CHRIS WILKINS - SHORE & Whariki Research Centre, College of Health

New Zealand has some unusual recreational drug use patterns compared with many other Western countries, with low levels of cocaine and heroin and relatively high levels of methamphetamine use.

Associate Professor Chris Wilkins of Massey’s SHORE & Whariki Research Centre researches drug use, drug markets and drug policy. He is interested in all areas of use and harm, as well as how illegal drug markets work. He also researches drug policy reform, most recently how laws regarding medicinal and recreational cannabis and new psychoactive substances might evolve.

For the past 10 years Associate Professor Wilkins has led the Illicit Drug Monitoring System, which provides an annual snapshot of drug use, drug markets and emerging drugs in New Zealand. The IDMS interviews frequent drug users to provide early warning of changes in drug use and the drug market. Findings from the study are utilised widely, by policymakers, government organisations, hospital emergency staff, drug treatment organisations and community groups. The results have shown important changes in the way drugs are being bought and sold, such as the increasing availability and declining prices of methamphetamine, and greater use of the internet to purchase drugs.

Another study, the New Zealand Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring system, involves interviews with police detainees about their drug use. The study monitors drug availability and price, and identifies emergent drug types. It also assesses the level of demand for drug treatment services and the difficulties detainees experience in accessing them. Recent findings showed that 76 per cent of police detainees who were interviewed had used an illegal drug in the previous year, most commonly cannabis, methamphetamine, synthetic cannabinoids, hallucinogens and ecstasy.

Both studies showed an increase in the use and availability of methamphetamine, and changes in its distribution. The proportion of frequent drug users who purchased methamphetamine from a gang member or gang associate was shown to have increased steadily, and it is becoming easier to obtain: the proportion of frequent drug users in Auckland who could purchase methamphetamine in one hour or less has also increased significantly. The proportion of detainees who had used methamphetamine in the previous year also increased and, at the same time, the mean price of a gram of methamphetamine has decreased, both of which are indicative of the rising international supply of the drug. These findings are consistent with the record seizures of methamphetamine made by New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Customs Service over the past two years.

Findings from the study are utilised widely, by policymakers, government organisations, hospital emergency staff, drug treatment organisations and community groups.


Interestingly, both studies showed a reduction in synthetic cannabis use. Synthetic cannabinoid products were effectively banned following the withdrawal of all product licences under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. However, there is evidence of an emerging black market for synthetic cannabinoids. Associate Professor Wilkins also notes a growing call for natural cannabis law reform. ‘Synthetic cannabinoids initially evolved out of the prohibition of natural cannabis and were sold as legal alternatives, but have now moved into a new market niche of cheap high-potency drugs for “at risk” groups, like rough sleepers,’ he explains. ‘Now, I think there’s a growing demand for reform in terms of the legal status of natural cannabis. Eight states in the United States have legalised it, and so have Canada and Uruguay, for example.’

Associate Professor Wilkins is also looking at new, innovative environmental toxicology and online methods for monitoring drug use. One promising area is wastewater analysis, which provides measures of drug consumption levels in a population based on minute concentrations of drug metabolites in samples of massed pooled sewage collected at wastewater treatment plants. ‘We’ve completed a pilot study, and we’re aiming to do a lot more of this type of monitoring. The advantage of the wastewater analysis is that it’s objective data based on environmental toxicology, allowing us to scientifically verify how much drug use is in the community in a very non-intrusive way that guarantees individual anonymity.’ Associate Professor Wilkins and his team are also exploring online methods to engage with drug users and to scan for indicators of new drug use on social media, such as Twitter.

He argues that improving access to drug treatment services is a high priority, particularly outside the main centres. ‘Smaller towns and cities are often not part of routine drug monitoring, but we are getting anecdotal reports that they have significant alcohol and drug use problems. They also often have poor access to services, so I think that’s an area where more could be done, including improving access and considering innovative online approaches which overcome the issues of geographical distance from traditional physical services.’

Project details

Websites facebook.com/NZDrugTrends, shoreandwhariki.ac.nz/chris-wilkins