American drug cartels trafficking fentanyl are eyeing the New Zealand market, as the Government tries to come to grips with the drug’s reach.

Authorities are trying to stop the illicit fentanyl market becoming established in communities, many of which are already plagued by what the Government has called a “methamphetamine epidemic”.

In a paper from Cabinet’s Social Wellbeing Committee seen by Newsroom, Police Minister Stuart Nash said, “it is not a matter of if but when fentanyl becomes a major problem in New Zealand”.

Meanwhile, Customs says drug cartels in Central and South America are looking to New Zealand and Australia as potential markets to sell illicit fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as an anaesthetic and pain reliever, especially for people with terminal illnesses and/or patients that cannot tolerate morphine. It is 80 times more potent than morphine and is often administered in patch form in New Zealand.

The illicit manufacture and sale of fentanyl has helped fuel the opioid crisis in the United States, following more liberal prescribing of opioid pain relievers by doctors in the 1990s. Each day 115 people in the US die from opioid overdoses.

In June, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the non-medical use of prescription drugs is becoming a major threat to public health and law enforcement across the globe, with opioids causing the most harm and accounting for 76 per cent of drug-related deaths worldwide.

Nash said information from the US Drug Enforcement Agency and Homeland Security showed New Zealand should be prepared for the growth of the illicit fentanyl market.

“We need to be prepared to act quickly to stop it becoming established in communities here.”

New Zealand’s illicit drug market is small but lucrative – the UNODC said New Zealand has the third highest price of methamphetamine in the world.

Transnational crime syndicates might look to exploit the market’s potential, Nash said.

There was opportunity to make substantial profit from small quantities of the drug, with 1 kilogram of fentanyl amounting to between 500,000 and 1 million street doses.

“How we manage the early stages of fentanyl emerging in New Zealand will likely be key to whether or not it becomes an ingrained problem.

“If we get this right and hit it hard in the first instance we may be able to stop its spread.”

If New Zealand was not prepared, and did not limit the drug’s impact, New Zealanders would die, Nash said.

Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry said globally there was an “exponential rise” in the presence of fentanyl.

Fentanyl sold on the black market was either diverted from drugs destined for prescription use, or manufactured illicitly.

It was also cheap to make, and only a small amount was needed (one gram of fentanyl is 1000 doses) meaning there was a greater risk of users overdosing, and of law enforcement officials being exposed to potentially harmful doses.

Customs data showed there had been 17 cases of fentanyl intercepted at the border since 2010, and 12 cases since the start of 2016, he said.

These intercepts came through mail examination, and in all cases the fentanyl was mixed with other drugs.

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported drug users in the UK were buying fentanyl through Chinese eBay-style websites.

Fentanyl intercepted at New Zealand’s border was usually ordered online, and the countries of origin were varied, Berry said.

Customs was working with international partners to gather information and stop fentanyl making it into the country. 

Budget 2018 included $54.2 million of operating funding over four years to enhance Customs’ capabilities to attack drug trafficking networks. This included an additional 127 Customs staff.

Customs now has funding for a staff member to be based in Los Angeles, working to stop the American cartels getting drugs to New Zealand, and recruitment for the role is underway.

Police, the Ministry of Health and ESR are also gathering information about the presence of fentanyl.

In the latest round of wastewater testing, police tested for fentanyl in the wastewater in Whangarei, Auckland’s North Shore and Christchurch.

Testing carried out in June found it was too early to draw conclusions about the extent of illicit fentanyl use.

Investigators are working with the Ministry of Health to establish which proportion of fentanyl in the wastewater was illicit, and what was from prescription use.

A spokeswoman for Nash said he was still awaiting advice on the extent of the unlawful use of fentanyl.

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