Drugs in wastewater

Knowing where and when drugs are most commonly used is a valuable insight for Police and other agencies to inform and target the activity.

Wastewater testing is crucial to Police and other agencies, such as the Ministry of Health and New Zealand Customs understanding of drug consumption in communities.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush has announced an expansion of the Police and ESR’s pilot wastewater testing programme which will now take in 39 sites around the country, capturing 80 per cent of the population.

ESR scientists say the national wastewater drug testing programme will provide real-time intelligence about what drugs are being used in New Zealand’s towns and cities.

It also has the potential to tell New Zealanders how healthy we are.

The initial pilot was commissioned by Police to test sites in Auckland and Christchurch to allow authorities to map drug-use patterns and provide better data than that achieved through self-reporting or drug arrests.

ESR analysed the wastewater in both cities to determine the amount, type and distribution of illicit drug use. Using a robust sampling protocol and a modified and validated extraction method, ESR tested for methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, alpha PVP (bath salts) and ecstasy (MDMA).

Seven months of sampling (seven consecutive days per month) produced interesting results over each seven-day period.

Methamphetamine use is relatively constant day to day, suggesting habitual use. MDMA shows very distinct usage spikes at the weekends, suggesting recreational use. These patterns are reasonably consistent each month.

No obvious patterns are emerging yet and it would be expected to take years of monitoring before long term trends emerge.

The findings have enabled Police and other agencies, such as Customs, to better understand drug-use patterns in the population and will be used as a baseline for future results.

One good news story has already emerged following very high usage of MDMA in Christchurch. Police and Customs increased resources, targeting MDMA at the airport. Within a few days a shipment was seized.

Waste water analysis is an emerging science and provides a valuable snapshot of the drug flow through cities. It is the first time such as test has been performed in New Zealand by a government agency. 

Meth and MDMA use over a month.