‘Super opiates’ linked to mass killing flood Qld
QUEENSLAND has seen a surge in dangerous new synthetic drugs, including one linked to a mass killing overseas.
More than 250 different synthetic drugs - called novel psychoactive substances (NPS) - have surfaced in the Sunshine State in recent years.
Some are so powerful they place the police and forensic officers who handle them at risk, experts say.
Dr Peter Culshaw, chief chemist at Queensland's Forensic and Scientific Services, said the potential for new variations of designer drugs was "unlimited".
"It really is bottomless because you can make unlimited modifications," he said.
"Here in Queensland, we've seen over 270 of these new NPS drugs through our lab in the last five years. That's quite a huge growth."
Synthetic drugs are chemically designed to mimic traditional narcotics like cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD.
But spawned in "sophisticated" laboratories, their potency and side-effects can be radically enhanced leaving users as virtual guinea pigs.
"In many cases … there's no record of them in the scientific literature at all," Dr Culshaw said.
"Apart from drug users trying them, there's no scientific evidence of how toxic or how potent these things are. It really is a significant risk."
The first wave of synthetic drugs arrived about 10 years ago.
Cannabinoids, as they were called, mimicked the "high" effects of marijuana but were a lot more potent. More recently, new forms of drugs have been synthesised by rogue chemists for the black market.
This includes carfentanil, which first showed up in Queensland two years ago.
The synthesised opiate is an incredible 10,000 times more potent than morphine and powerful enough to kill someone with just two millionths of a gram.
It is also thought to be the substance Russian special forces pumped into a Moscow theatre in 2002 after it had been taken hostage by Chechen terrorists.
The toxic fumes were designed to subdue the 40 insurgents but instead killed them along with about 204 hostages.
Dr Culshaw said drugs like carfentanil posed serious risks for the people who had to deal with them.
"It's a problem for law enforcement, ambulance officers and also our laboratory staff because these drugs are very, very hazardous," he said.
Anecdotal evidence points to China as the source of the drugs. Dr Culshaw believed they were manufactured in "quite sophisticated labs" by qualified chemists.
Under Queensland law, previously unknown substances are illegal if they are similar enough to already banned drugs.
This has seen a cat-and-mouse game play out as drug manufacturers try to stay ahead of the law by making small changes to the drug's chemical structure.
"It's a continual global catch-up that we seem to face at the moment," Dr Culshaw said.
"It's quite difficult to capture some of those drugs fast enough with legislation."