Written by KnowYourStuff in conjunction with NZ Needle Exchange
Drug checking organisations in New Zealand have noticed an increase in clients bringing their methamphetamine in for testing with concerns about the effects of their drugs. We all test methamphetamine regularly around the country, but recently we’ve had more clients reporting their methamphetamine as either
a) underperforming and was a bit of a bummer,
b) an unpleasant/painful experience with negative side effects that lasted a couple of days, or
c) some weird unexpected effects entirely unlike methamphetamine
There’s some history of methamphetamine causing strange effects, or not being the same quality as people expect or remember from past experience. The experiences people have been sharing with us recently however, seem to be a relatively new pattern in Aotearoa.
All of us in the harm reduction sphere in Aotearoa are working to help people take care of themselves and we want to get to the bottom of what’s happening. We’re still looking into this but this is what we know so far:
What are the test results saying?
We’ve had 166 samples of methamphetamine brought in for testing to the NZ Needle Exchange, KnowYourStuffNZ, and The NZ Drug Foundation in the last 6 months. Some highly experienced clients brought us two samples where they were confident one bag caused normal effects and the other gave unexpected, unpleasant effects. The clinics were held nationwide.
Most of the methamphetamine people brought into the drug checking clinics was consistent with methamphetamine when it was run through the spectrometer.
If a sample was either not consistent with methamphetamine when tested with the spectrometer, or it was associated with harm or negative effects, it was sent to a lab for further analysis.
Further examination of those 35 samples showed
- 1 sample that was n-isopropylbenzylamine (n-iso) with no methamphetamine present
- 1 sample of Cyclohexanamine with traces of methamphetamine
- 2 samples of methamphetamine with n-iso mixed in
- 31 samples were consistent with methamphetamine, sometimes with low-risk fillers or binders.
What are people experiencing?
Methamphetamine is a stimulant. The usual effects of stimulants are alertness, being energised and euphoria. We don’t expect moderate methamphetamine use to cause rapid and intense tiredness or fatigue, difficulty seeing, joint swelling, long-lasting headaches, sharp stomach pains or an uncomfortable burning sensation or skin rash far away from the injection site. But these are some of the experiences our clients are sharing.
Quick check in
People who have taken methamphetamine for a few days at a time, with no breaks for rest or recovery, may be familiar with effects such as getting tired and falling asleep, being anxious or depressed, and feeling physically wrecked.
This is pretty standard for folk that have been awake for a few days and is similar to coming down with a cold or the flu. Your joints ache, you feel sick, you get a crushing headache, and your mood goes through the floor. Sleep is how your body and mind replenishes and fixes itself from daily wear and tear, so if you’re not sleeping, you’re not giving yourself the chance to recover.
But if you’re feeling these on day 1 and you’re not getting sick, it’s probably not a good sign
We acknowledge that these are also effects of long-term, frequent methamphetamine use. But we wouldn’t expect to see these effects when sticking to a lower dose over a shorter period of time, especially if the dose is administered correctly along with basic physical maintenance such as rest and food.
Crowd theories from clients
People have shared several possible explanations for what’s going on. These theories include that meth’s getting cut with a substance called n-isopropylbenzylamine, different isomers of meth (the “good” D stuff vs. the “boring” L stuff), or even that it’s laced with fentanyl.
There is also an argument that these effects are the expected result of chronic methamphetamine use, that these risks are real and nothing out of the ordinary. Each of these narratives can be true simultaneously, so making sense of what is happening in Aotearoa’s meth, or in your specific bag or experience, is very hard!
Unfortunately the green-pack fentanyl test strips that have been given out can often show a false-positive result when testing methamphetamine. Drug checking organisations in Aotearoa are switching to a more accurate type of test that we can do in our clinics, and we’ll be using those in clinics from August onwards. You can also get the new fentanyl test strips for free online at the Level and soon you’ll be able to add them to your next order from the NEP online store.
Although drug checkers haven’t found any samples of methamphetamine cut with opioids in Aotearoa yet, there still isn’t a clear explanation of why these unexpected symptoms can happen for people.
N-Isopropylbenzylamine (n-iso for short) has been blamed for these changes in methamphetamine in other parts of the world. We’ve found 6 samples so far that have been confirmed by forensic lab testing at ESR to have n-isopropylbenzylamine (n-iso) in them. We’ve also seen 2 samples in checking clinics that appear to contain only n-iso and at most a trace of methamphetamine, which were not submitted for further testing.
It turns out that n-iso is actually pretty rare. Studies done in the US by the Erowid research crew between 2010 and 2021 on suspected n-iso samples revealed only methamphetamine with no unexpected ingredients. Erowid did another round of tests in 2022 and found 8 samples containing n-iso. Combined with the DEA’s two samples, this makes a total of 10 samples in the US in the last 12 years.
What’s striking us as weird is the fact that we’ve seen more n-iso than the US. The fact that New Zealand has legal drug checking is probably behind this given our comparative populations. But still, it’s a little jarring.
What does n-iso feel like?
These are effects that people have told us when they’ve brought in their samples, and what we’ve found on sites like Reddit.
Like we said earlier, some of these effects can also happen when your body is wrung out from long periods of time, large amounts of substance, or if your physical health, mental health, or general sense of well-being is a bit off. If your drugs give you unexpected results, check in with yourself and see where you’re at before bracing for the worst.
The most common effects people feel after taking substances that have been confirmed to contain n-iso are:
When injected (I.V)
- Intense burning sensation at usual concentrations
- Soreness at site of injection
- Long lasting headaches
- Bodily discomfort (“I feel like I’ve been poisoned”)
- Sleepiness/inability to stay awake
- Sleepy/drowsy / unable to stay awake
- Digestive issues (gassy/bloated)
- Depressive feelings
- Skin issues – pimples etc
(Anecdotes from people who think they have had dodgy methamphetamine because the experience wasn’t what they thought it would be, but have not had the contents of their drugs confirmed by drug checking)
- Skin Lesions (serious skin wounds) reported from both injecting and smoking
- Loss of consciousness similar to high-dose depressants (opioids or benzo overdose)
- Lasting effect of low mood and emotional regulation
- Lack of focus (brain fog)
- Tightness in chest and neck
- Light sensitive eyes
- Swollen glands in neck/jaw
N-iso might give you a massive down
Taking drugs can be rewarding, risky, and generally a bit of a rush, regardless of what drug you’re taking. That rush is your body’s dopamine system kicking into gear.
Dopamine is your brain’s reward chemical. It’s the hormone that’s responsible for giving you that feeling of satisfaction and happiness when you do something well, complete a super difficult task, or do something that you really enjoy. When you do something that makes you feel intense happiness or euphoria, your brain ‘tags’ the behaviours around the feeling with a dopamine release.
If this euphoria that comes from injecting, your entire system will be hyped and ready for the dopamine rush when you set up your gear. It knows what’s coming next and it is stoked. And when the euphoria doesn’t happen – in this case because n-iso doesn’t have the same expected psychoactive effects – your system will, for want of a better phrase, be VERY disappointed.
This can feel like
One person described it as being the ‘physical version of throwing a birthday party that nobody comes to’.
Is sleepy meth the same as n-iso?
Some clients have brought us meth for checking that they’ve described as having a distinct or concerning ‘sleepy’ effect. Some people were so worried about a friend or family member that they injected a person with naloxone (opioid overdose antidote) to try and wake them up.
As far as the science is showing, n-iso can have the same effects as sleepy meth, but sleepy meth isn’t always n-iso. Of the 18 samples of suspected sleepy meth that were brought in for testing in Aotearoa only 3 samples were n-iso.
Ok so what is sleepy meth then?
Sleepy meth is more of a phenomenon than a specific drug, from what we know so far. People take their methamphetamine and feel overwhelmingly tired, lethargic and demotivated, sometimes to the point of falling asleep at the pipe, or while waiting in traffic. People also feel nauseous or sick and overheated.
This phenomena of sleepy meth has been extensively debated internationally since about 2017. The vast majority of drug checking done on “sleepy meth” samples has not shown the presence of any n-Iso.
The most compelling theory of why some meth feels sleepy and some doesn’t is that this is caused by different stereoisomers of the meth molecule. Note: this is a theory with little scientific research or evidence, and is highly contentious amongst communities of people who use methamphetamine.
An isomer is a molecule that has the same combination of atoms, but arranged in a different shape. Methamphetamine has two stereoisomers, dextro (d) and levo (l). They are mirror images of each other but both are methamphetamine. Lots of chemicals, and lots of drugs have stereoisomers like this. Sometimes the two are almost identical in effect, sometimes they are very different. They can coexist in what’s called a racemic mixture, where both d-meth and l-meth are present.
For the last few decades, most methamphetamine has been primarily made in a way which
produces mostly dextro-methamphetamine (d-meth).
Methamphetamine consumers and drug checkers discussing this internationally suspect that another isomer of meth – levo-methamphetamine (l-meth) might give more sleepy effects than d-meth.
Where d-meth is a euphoric stimulant which most people know as the desirable normal methamphetamine, when your meth contains both d-meth and l-meth (racemic) then the effects can be different and less pleasant.
L-methamphetamine also has a longer half life (stays in your body longer) but the experience of it might be the opposite, with at least one study showing that people given L-meth said the feeling of being high faded faster.
Note: It is very difficult to identify the different isomers. No drug checking service in NZ is able to do this yet as more specialised equipment is needed.
What about salt n vinegar meth?
Along with sleepy meth, people have also been bringing ‘salt n vinegar meth’ in for drug checking. Not only does it smell really strongly of vinegar, but it can burn when injected.
The smell may be due to the way the meth is made. Vinegar-smelling meth may or may not contain other substances. But if you’re experiencing burning or other unpleasant effects, it’s a good idea to get your meth checked.
There’s still a lot we don’t conclusively know yet
We’re running off a very small representative number of the many people that take methamphetamine in Aotearoa. So our science is pretty limited because of our sample size. The more samples we get and the more evidence we gather, the better our harm reduction advice can be.
We still don’t know why n-iso shares some effects with sleepy meth, what sleepy meth even is, or what causes salt n vinegar meth to smell the way it does. The more samples we have, the more of a body of evidence we can build – so if you’ve brought your meth in for us to check, thank you. The research is still being done both here and overseas, and your samples are contributing to it, so watch this space.
Stigma prevents good research.
There’s a heap of stigma around methamphetamine and the people that take it. This makes it hard for people who take methamphetamine to trust doctors, health professionals, or anyone else for that matter, because they feel like they’ll be judged, patronised and treated like a criminal or an addict, instead of like a human being.
This, combined with the amount of times people who take methamphetamine have actually experienced stigma when they try to go to people for help, means that very few people that take methamphetamine will come forward to health services or drug checking organisations for harm reduction advice.
Why should you come and get your drugs checked? (Besides the identifying the chemicals in your drugs thing)
Drug checking honours your choices. Both your choice to take drugs or not, and your choice to take whichever drug you want. It’s your body, you decide what goes into it.
We’re here to give you honest, transparent information so you can make informed choices.
We’re not going to tell you off for taking drugs, that’s not going to help anyone.
In Aotearoa drug checking is legal under the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2021. This means that not only are we allowed to perform tests on your drugs, but there’s a bunch of stuff in place to protect you when it comes to the cops and legal things in general:
Section 35DD states you’re allowed to give us your drugs, and it doesn’t count as supply.
Section 35DDE(2) states drug checking organisations can’t take or keep your personal information, including noting down any information about your appearance for later identification. We want information about the drugs, not you.
Section 35DI states that the cops can’t use the fact that you’ve been to a drug checking clinic, or the results from any drug checking you’ve had done against you in court.
So please, come and see us. Bring us your drugs and have a yarn. We’d love to see you.
Reducing your risks with methamphetamine
Get it checked
One reason for why n-iso may be added into methamphetamine is that the two chemicals are so structurally similar, they crystallise in a way that looks practically identical to the usual product by eye. Bringing your meth into a checking clinic and running it through the spectrometer before you take it will help to rule out any unexpected substances n-iso or common cutting agents like MSM and creatine.
If you can’t get to a checking clinic, there are a few other ways you can check your methamphetamine for n-iso:
Reagent tests are chemicals that you drop onto a very small sample of your drugs. Reagents will change colour to show the presence of certain drugs. Reagents are helpful but without other methods they can’t offer very confident results.
Pure n-iso will not cause a colour change with Marquis or Mandelin reagents. If there are even just traces of methamphetamine in the sample then that will react with the reagent and cause a colour change. Reagent kits can be purchased from Cosmic and other retailers.
N-Iso crystals are more brittle and easier to crush. If you know what methamphetamine crystals usually feel like, this might help you identify potential n-iso.
N-iso can absorb more water from the air than meth can, creating a wetter texture of the n-iso crystals.
Melting point test
N-iso melts at a higher temperature than methamphetamine, and is likely to take a bit more heat to get going in a bowl.
- N-Isopropylbenzylamine hydrochloride 192.0 – 193.3℃
- Methamphetamine hydrochloride 172 – 174℃
When melted, the higher water content in N-iso might cause it to crack and pop (“crackback”) instead of having a smooth flowing consistency. Regular meth can do this as well, but it’s not terribly common.
Smoke before you inject
If you smoke a tiny bit and you start feeling off, you can put the pipe down and get it checked. The NZNEP has checking clinics Tuesday to Saturday every week in most cities, so you won’t have to wait long. But if you inject your full dose and things take a turn for the unpleasant, that’s around 6-8 hours of feeling like you’ve been poisoned.
N-iso can give anyone who takes it a headache and body aches almost immediately after they’ve taken it. People also report being able to taste a difference when smoked, which may tip you off that this bag’s not quite right.
Give it the sniff test
As we’ve mentioned, salt n vinegar meth reeks of vinegar. If your meth smells like it would go well with onion dip, maybe smoke it instead of injecting or water it down and see how you go.
If you inject
The usual harm reduction advice for injecting still applies:
- Use new equipment each time if you can. Definitely use fresh needles every time
- Use sterile or boiled water to dilute your substance
- Use a wheel filter to get rid of bacteria
- Only inject a small amount of your dose to start with
Wheel filters give you peace of mind that there are no germs in your hit, and can be rinsed out with just a bit more water so that you’re not losing any of your stuff. Watch the New Zealand Needle Exchange’s video on using a wheel filter
Currently, you can get new injecting equipment, including wheel filters, for free in the South Island and from most North Island Needle Exchanges, or online from https://www.nznep.org.nz/shop.
Salt n vinegar meth can burn as soon as it gets into your body, so if there’s burning, don’t do the full dose, or dilute it in more sterile water before you do.
N-iso can give you a headache and body aches straight off the bat, so if you feel off after a tiny bit, don’t bother with the rest.
We really want you to be safe in whatever you choose to do. At the risk of sounding like your nanna or a stuck record, we’d love to see you at a checking clinic. And also your drugs.