Sewage study shows prevalence of designer drug use in 8 countries

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  • Designer drugs are substances that mimic illicit substances
  • These drugs are becoming a growing concern to governments around the world
  • A new sewage study found that there is a growing prevalence of these drugs

There are growing concerns around the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS), yet the extent of the use of these substances is not well known. 

A recent international wastewater study aimed to find out how much and how many of these substances were consumed over a specific period at 14 different sites across eight countries. 

New psychoactive substances – what are they?

According to an article in the BMJ, new psychoactive substance (NPS) or "legal highs" are “compounds designed to mimic existing established recreational drugs". They can be grouped into four main categories: stimulants, cannabinoids, hallucinogens, and depressants.

These substances have been linked to many hospitalisations and even deaths, which led researchers at the University of South Australia to investigate the prevalence of NPS use.

Sifting through sewage

Samples of wastewater were collected from 14 sites over the New Year period (2019/2020) across Australia, New Zealand, China, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Norway and the United States. These samples were then shipped to South Australia in order to be analysed for traces of NSP.

The researchers noted that the reason for collecting samples over the New Year period was due to the high numbers of parties and celebrations during that time of year. In total, more than 200 synthetic drugs were monitored of which 16 were found. 

“Of the eight countries studied, only Norway showed no traces of NPS,” said analytical chemist and first author of the study, Dr Richard Bade. “The Netherlands recorded the highest usage, followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Spain, Italy and China had the lowest incidence of designer drug use in cities participating in the study.”

Drugs mimicking cocaine and ‘Molly’

Of the 16 substances found, methcathinone and N-ethylpentylone were the most common. N-ethylpentylone (commonly known as "Molly") is known to cause death, and usage was found in the US, Australia and New Zealand. 

A designer drug called mephedrone (street name "cat" or "meow meow") was only found in Australia and New Zealand where usage spiked on New Year’s Eve.

“It is a very powerful drug that produces effects similar to those of cocaine and MDMA and is popular among ecstasy and stimulant users in Australia and NZ,” Dr Bade said.

In 2020, warnings were issued about the toxicity of a new drug called eutylone, as high dosages can be incredibly dangerous. The drug that was falsely marketed as ecstasy due to its appearance was seen in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and The Netherlands.

“What makes the 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 when, in fact, there was very little information about their toxicity,” said Dr Bade. 

“Governments soon intervened after hospitalisations and fatalities were linked to this class of drugs with some countries enforcing blanket bans. However, despite these bans, NPS are still synthesised, transported and consumed across the world, often with fatal consequences.”

Dr Bade went on to say that he hopes studies like these can assist governments in order to pinpoint which designer drugs are most dangerous in communities.

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