Study reports rise in use of 'designer' drug substitutes


Tuesday, 26 March, 2024

Study reports rise in use of 'designer' drug substitutes

Researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) have issued an alert on the use of designer drug substitutes, following a 75% increase in detection of synthetic stimulant pentylone in wastewater treatment plants across Australia.

In a new study — part of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program — the UniSA researchers identified 20 different novel psychoactive substances (NPS) in plants across the country (between 22 and 23 Feb) with pentylone detected at every collection site. Other NPS, eutylone and phenibut, were also commonly detected.

Pentylone (street name ‘bath salts’) is said to be a highly potent and unpredictable synthetic cathinone*, producing similar effects to stimulants such as methamphetamine or MDMA. This group of drugs is said to produce stronger effects that wear off faster, leading to more frequent use.

NPS use — trends and preferences

UniSA researcher Dr Emma Jaunay said any changes to drug levels in wastewater can provide an early warning for NPS circulating in the illicit drug market.

“Novel psychoactive substances are drugs that have been designed to mimic established illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and LSD,” Jaunay said.

“These types of drugs are unregulated and untested, and by nature their chemical composition is constantly changing to stay ahead of the law. When they first appear, they’re commonly called ‘legal highs’ because they are not yet classed as controlled or prohibited substances.

“In this study, we tested wastewater from across Australia to determine what type of NPS were being used across the year. Of the 59 different NPS we looked for, 20 were found in wastewater across the study — some occasionally, while others were at every site for multiple collections.

“The most common group of NPS detected were synthetic cathinones, also known as ‘bath salts’, which mimic the effect of stimulant drugs like MDMA.

“Specifically, we detected an increase of pentylone across Australia, with frequencies rising from 25% in April in 2022 to 100% across all states and territories by December that same year**.

“Interestingly, we found pentylone displaced eutylone, which highlights the constantly evolving nature of NPS and how quickly drug preferences change.”

Raising awareness

This study is unique in that the sample intentionally avoided special events and holiday periods to determine more typical trends across the year, researchers suggested.

“Changes to drug levels present in wastewater can provide early signals about drug use and raise awareness of new drugs with harm potential,” Jaunay said.

“Routine monitoring provides valuable insights about illicit drugs and their ‘legal’ counterparts before overdoses and fatalities occur.”

*Synthetic cathinones such as pentylone, eutylone and phenibut are mostly white or brown powders, but can also be in crystalline form, capsules or tablets. They can be swallowed, snorted or injected with effects appearing within 15-45 minutes and lasting from 2-4 hours.
Additional illicit drug data here: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/alcohol/alcohol-tobacco-other-drugs-australia/contents/impacts/health-impacts#druginduceddeaths.

Image credit: iStock.com/Diy13

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