In recent times, New Zealand has seen an influx of synthetic drugs come on to the market. This includes synthetic cannabis, synthetic cathinones (bath salts), and NBOMEe (synthetic LSD). The effect of these drugs on its users has been apparent, with more than 50 people believed to have died from synthetic drugs since mid-2017.1

Widespread evidence shows that the side effects of synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous and pose a significant risk to workplace health and safety. Users can display schizophrenia-like systems, become aggressive and agitated easily, and suffer from insomnia. In addition, the use of synthetic cannabis has been linked to psychosis, heart and renal failure, and a high rate of seizures among users (18%).2

Employers owe a duty of care to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and others is not put at risk.3 A person under the influence of synthetic drugs could pose a significant danger to the workplace, particularly if users work in safety sensitive roles.

While an employer may be diligent in carrying out on-site drug testing, a frightening reality is that a traditional on-site drug test may not pick up synthetic drugs. In most cases, an on-site screening test will normally only test for cannabis, opiates (such as heroin and morphine), cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamines. This means that there is a real risk that, if an employee is under the influence of synthetic drugs at work, an on-site screening test will not detect that.

The only way to guarantee that an employee is tested for synthetic drugs is to ensure that all on-site drug tests are sent to the laboratory for full screening. Traditionally, it has been that a test is only sent to the laboratory when an employee returns a non-negative (positive) result.

Therefore, employers should consider altering their drug and alcohol policies to enable testing for synthetic drugs, including providing that all drug tests, even negative drug tests, will be sent to the laboratory for full laboratory-based screening. The drug and alcohol policy should also be extended to prohibit synthetic drugs (if it does not already).


1 New Zealand Drug Foundation,,

2 TriEx,

3 Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, s 36.

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