Rise detected throughout Australia in designer drugs

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

University of South Australia experts have issued an alert on the use of the synthetic stimulant pentylone, as new research finds a 75% increase in detections across Australia.

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

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

Users of novel psychoactive substances are at risk due to limited information about the toxicity and unpredictable effects of these compounds.

The Department of Health in Victoria has warned that the drugs are being found in people’s systems, in intensive care.

“There have been a number of recent cases in Victoria where people requiring emergency care have reported using MDMA, but blood tests have shown synthetic cathinones,” a VicHealth bulletin announced. “Cathinones detected recently in Victoria include pentylone, dipentylone, dibutylone, dimethylone, eutylone and methylone.

“In most of these cases the cathinones were apparent adulterants in products that also contained MDMA. In others, people had been mis-sold cathinones as substitutes for MDMA. Synthetic cathinones may appear as crystals, powders, tablets or capsules.”

Emma Jaunay

UniSA researcher, Dr Emma Jaunay says 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 cannabiscocaine, MDMA and LSD,” Jaunay says.

“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.”

Read more: drugs found in the air

This study sample intentionally avoided special events and holiday periods to determine more typical trends across the year. 

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

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

In 2022 Australia had 1693 drug-induced deaths (64% males and 36% females).

Based on an article originally published in University of South Australia news.

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