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Last week's haul: Queenstown police seized more than 2400 MDMA pills, with a street value of about $125,000, LSD tabs, cannabis and more than $5000 in cash last week. PICTURE: NZ POLICE

By MATTHEW MCKEW

Deadly bathsalts peddled as MDMA in Queenstown are putting young people in hospital as foreigners and others fund their time in the resort by drug dealing.

Further, Queenstown’s top cop, detective senior sergeant Malcolm Inglis, says wastewater tests suggest the resort’s now the MDMA capital of New Zealand.

Inglis says N-Ethylpentylone — or bathsalts — and mephedrone, commonly known as ‘M-Cat’ or ‘Meow Meow’, are being subbed in for MDMA to unsuspecting party-goers.

Mephedrone first hit the headlines in 2010 when as a legal high it was connected to 25 deaths in the UK, and it’s since led to unsuspecting Kiwis being rushed to hospital for emergency treatment.

Inglis: ‘‘It’s quite a dangerous drug and linked to a number of deaths overseas.

‘‘We certainly don’t want to see it on the market and it’s being sold here as MDMA.’’

But what’s significantly more dangerous is the bathsalts, three times more powerful than MDMA, being peddled as the party drug, Inglis says.

‘‘It … has resulted in multiple hospitalisations in NZ.’’

Side-effects can include rapid muscle breakdown, paranoia, an inability to sleep for 36 hours and even psychosis.

Inglis says police are working throughout the community to combat the issue, including with bar owners.

‘‘Bars have got to stay in business by selling drinks and if there’s people out on drugs, they won’t be buying drinks and will be causing problems.

‘‘There’s a need to see a safe environment for them and they’ve been really positive working with us.’’

He says in recent months ‘‘several foreigners’’ have appeared in our courts having thought they could ‘‘fund their holidays, travelling NZ, by selling illegal drugs’’.

Drugs warnings: Detective senior sergeant Malcolm Inglis

‘‘We have concerns about what is being sold to young people in the drug market and the potential to end up in the hospital or even end up dead … people will sell anything to make money.’’

He’s also warning about the creeping gang problems in the Whakatipu as they look to cash in on the recreational drug trade to fund their own weekends here.

‘‘We have certainly seen a presence of gangs in Queenstown from right across the country — Queenstown’s a popular destination for everyone for things to do, and gang members are no different.

‘‘They see Queenstown as an attractive place and gangs generally fund what they do by illegal activity, including selling methamphetamine and other drugs.’’

Gangs bring a threat of violence and guns, Inglis says, as shown recently in the North Island.

‘‘We cannot think we are immune,’’ he says, pointing out the recovery of two shotguns in Wanaka during a recent drug raid.

In fact, just yesteray a 51-year-old man was arrested in Queenstown on firearms-related charges as part of ‘Operation Hare’, a two-month investigation targeting a meth manufacturer, who established a distribution network covering the length of NZ.

Police seized more than 2 kilograms of meth, LSD, heroin, cocaine, MDMA and cannabis.

There were also several hundred thousand dollars in cash and eight firearms.

Meantime, Inglis says police wastewater testing shows the southern district has the highest proportion of MDMA use per person in NZ.

And in Queenstown 80% of the drugs found are the ecstasy-based pills.

Testing between November 2019 and January 2020 found an average of 655mg of MDMA was being consumed in the southern district each week.

Weekend users’ warning

Make good choices: NZ Drug Foundation’s Ben Birks Ang

First-time drug users and people in Queenstown for a stag do — or other wild weekend away — are most at risk from dodgy pills, an expert warns.

NZ Drug Foundation’s Ben Birks Ang says one-time weekends away an be when people who would never otherwise use drugs let their inhibitions go.

‘‘The people who are most vulnerable are those people who take it once a year or for the first time and are less likely to have links to dealers, less likely to know how it should feel to spot the signs of something going wrong or … to have someone who hasn’t taken anything to keep an eye on them.’’

He says dealers are more likely to take advantage of somebody they won’t see again as they don’t expect repeat business.

Birks Ang warns it’s almost impossible for users to know what other dangerous chemicals are contained n the pills they buy without professional testing.

He says if people are going to look past the health risks and legality of illicit drugs, he recommends taking the smallest amount.

‘‘So potentially taking a third of the pill and waiting for an hour to see if it has an affect … because if it is MDMA they have just taken a smaller dose, but if it is something else then they haven’t inadvertently taken three doses all in one.’’

Birks Ang say there are tester kits available to check for the presence of MDMA in a pill, but they don’t show what else it’s cut with.

He urges any users to have a person close to them who isn’t using drugs to ensure they get medical help as soon as possible if something goes wrong.

Birks Ang further warns the limited supply of cocaine in New Zealand means dealers are cutting it with methamphetamine, or P, knowing they can get way mixing up white powder.

The foundation released a report this month showing MDMA use is on the up across NZ, and far more pills are being seized by police and customs.

In 2018, 350,000 pills were confiscated — by 2019 that skyrocketed to 2.4 million.

matthew.mckew@scene.co.nz