Changing drug-use by changing the Law: New Zealand in Focus

NZ is leading the way in implementing drug-testing services...

by Samantha Mythen

For those gearing up for summer festivals in the Southern Hemisphere, the key advice is to check your drugs.

Late last year, New Zealand adopted world-first legislation allowing drug checking to occur legally onsite at music festivals. 

Festival organisers are now no longer at risk of prosecution under section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act if they choose to have a drug checking organisation at their event.

Drug checking service Know Your Stuff, the organisation primarily behind the campaign for the law change, worked to full capacity at every event they attended over New Years.

Know Your Stuff Deputy and Operations Manager Dr Jez Weston said the organisation has proved drug checking works in the New Zealand context.

He said the law previously used to push festival organisers away from acknowledging the reality of drug use at events.

But now, commercial festivals are happy to take a stronger approach to protecting the welfare of everyone attending their events. 

“That means more than drug checking. It’s chill-out spaces, psychadelic first-aid, consent and sexual health services, and medical services being forewarned of what drugs are at an event,” he said.

The law change has been a catalyst for more transparent and open conversations about drug use.

Drug checking at festivals also provides an early warning system for what drugs are circulating the country, allowing Know Your Stuff to reduce harm from day one.

This year, New Zealand has seen nitazenes, new cathinones, new synthetic cannabinoids and fentanyl arriving into the country.

“Because we know what’s here, we can better prepare for that, for example making fentanyl testing strips available so people can do their own testing, alongside massively increasing the amount of naloxone so if someone does overdose on opioids then they can be treated right away,” Weston said.

With more people becoming aware of what riskier drugs are out there, suppliers themselves are pulling them from the market. 

The biggest issue Know Your Stuff now faces is meeting the vast demand for its services.

“This is a good problem to have,” said Weston.

New Zealand’s Green Party Drug Reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick believes drug checking services should be available to whoever needs them wherever they’re needed.

“It’s ludicrous to pretend drug consumption only happens at music festivals and not also bars, clubs and weekend parties,” she said.

“Those on the front line are the first to admit gatekeeping their services to only ticketed, expensive events limits harm reduction. Everyone who needs these services should have access.”

Swarbrick is a loud advocate for completely overhauling New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act. 

She said a law that actually achieves its stated aims is needed, rather than one that just sweeps problems under a rug. 

England’s summer festival season has now come to a close, after a summer that saw yet another tragic death at Leeds Festival. 

The musical calendar in the UK is every year jam packed with artists from around the country and abroad making the most of the masses, even more so since 2020 with swathes of people who have been craving a boogie since the end of coronavirus restrictions.

With the desire to let loose and dance comes the desire to consume alcohol and other illegal substances.

England’s premier drug checking service, The Loop, was at eight UK-based festivals this summer with its pop-up labs.

Loop co-founder Professor Fiona Measham said at its peak service in 2018, the organisartion’s drug checking service was available to over a quarter of a million festival-goers.

“At peak service, we tested more than 500 samples a day and delivered face-to-face healthcare consultations by health professionals to 400 people a day,” she said.

“So the scale is much bigger in the UK than NZ.”

The Loop now has a Home Office Licence to work in Bristol.

Weston said The Loop is proving drug checking works in the UK context.

“So now it’s really about finding the politicians who will look clearly at the evidence and who want to keep people safe, rather than just scoring political points by moralistic grand-standing,” he said.

Measham said the New Zealand legislation is primarily positive. However, from her researcher background, she has pondered whether it is necessary or helpful to have government scrutiny on drug checking.

“In Europe, drug checking has been operating successfully in many countries for decades and aside from the Netherlands and now the UK, it has been largely independent of government influence,” she said.

“After all, playing devil’s advocate, we don’t have legislation to facilitate dental check-ups so why introduce it for drug checking?!”

Swarbrick said however, by legalising drug checking services, festival organisers and service providers such as Know Your Stuff are no longer putting themselves at legal risk for providing the lifesaving services.

For people who use drugs, visiting a drug checking clinic or pop-up lab is often the first time they can have an open conversation about drugs without being judged ot told not to take them.

Weston said this connects people with information and support they would not otherwise access.

“Our clients are reporting long-term changes in their approach to drug use towards harm reduction approaches and practices, so this isn’t just about helping people at events, it’s about improving the overall knowledge and awareness of safer drug practices,” he said.

This is something The Loop also agrees with.

Weston said there are no longer any excuses for not changing drug laws. 

“Drug checking works to reduce the harm from drugs. Existing drug law prevents or hinders drug checking and creates harm,” he said.

“There’s a simple question that should be put to anyone defending current drug laws: “how many more people do you want to die before you change the law?

Samantha Mythen is currently adventuring around the world, writing stories and making mistakes she hopes to one day look back on and laugh about.  She is extremely passionate about ensuring safe drug use education is available to everyone. Tweets@SamanthaMythen


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