There is no Consumer Rights Act when it comes to drugs. You take what you bought, or you take nothing at all. You just hope that guy who pulled up in front of your house in a late model black BMW, who you know only by his Wickr name, is actually selling you what you asked for. It's a scenario that only gets more uncertain over the summer-festival period, when, realising your initial supplies have been exhausted on the first night, you might not know even that much about the dealer under the hoody.
It's a mystery Wendy Allison wants to clear up. The 47-year-old Wellingtonian "rave baby" founded KnowYourStuffNZ, an organisation, staffed by volunteers, that sets up at festivals, takes a sample of your drugs, then tells you exactly what it is you're about to put up your nostrils—all for free. "What we want people to do is make informed choices about what they're putting into their body. It's all very well saying, 'Don't do drugs', but that's not exactly working… What prohibition has done has created a market that has absolutely no quality control. People buy mystery white powders and they have no idea what they're getting."
"For the first few years I did it, I didn't test a single thing that was what it was supposed to be."
The organisation had its genesis when the Government outlawed BZP, the main ingredient in legal "party pills", in 2008. She bought a reagent testing kit (in which you place a sample in a certain liquid, and the resulting colour change alerts you to the presence of a particular drug) and started testing among her community, finding lots of BZP, just as she had predicted. "For the first few years I did it, I didn't test a single thing that was what it was supposed to be."
At one particular event, she says, there were some pills going around called "the black pills". Some people who took them were having an excellent time, and others had "some pretty horrible symptoms". The conclusion Allison reached was that somebody had mimicked a good press of pills with something dangerous. "The medics came to us and went, 'If nothing is done about this, people are going to die.'" Doing something about it is how KnowYourStuffNZ was born.
Armed with a more formal organisation and a spectrometer—a device that pushes light through a molecule to determine exactly what it is, telling you the exact makeup of your powder rather than just the presence of a particular drug within it—KnowYourStuffNZ has been testing samples at festivals for the past three years. Last summer, Allison told me, 20 percent of the pills tested didn't contain any of the substances they purported to, and another 11 percent had been adulterated.
The most concerning discovery was the amount of cathinones—i.e. "bath salts"—they found in drugs masquerading as MDMA. A quarter of presumed MDMA turned out not to be, and among that 25 percent the group found 11 different cathinones. Very little, Allison says, is known about these, each of which has different active doses, different toxic doses, and different effects. "If people take these things thinking they're MDMA and, for example, drink alcohol, they could get into a lot of trouble."
In early 2016, a 27-year-old Paraparaumu man died after ingesting what was suspected to be Alpha-PVP, a cathinone. Three more people in the Kapiti area were hospitalised after taking the same drug. It's not known whether these were purchased knowingly or not, but at the time Kapiti Police senior sergeant Anita Dixon had this warning: "More and more often we're seeing dealers 'cutting' drugs with other substances that make the effects highly dangerous."
"What we do is not illegal, but everything around it is."
Testing at festivals, Allison says, means operating "in this weird little grey area where what we do is not illegal, but everything around it is." The people who bring their drugs to be tested are in contravention of Section 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act—an act more than 40 years old—because they are (although sometimes they just think they are) in possession of illegal substances.
For festival organisers, Section 12 prohibits them from knowingly permitting people to take drugs at their events: allowing KnowYourStuffNZ on site contravenes this. No event, as far as Allison knows, has been busted under this section, but it remains a possibility. Other festivals rely on local authority, which often includes a clause about doing everything possible to ensure a drug-free event, something that obviously excludes KnowYourStuffNZ from operating on site.
Allison says testing is a "practicable step that works a lot better than sticking your head in the sand and pretending it's not happening."
Allison says KnowYourStuffNZ would love to work closely with the police to further their harm-reduction aims, but that it seems unlikely without a law change. This summer, the organisation has already been booked for a few festivals, while there are plenty of others that are interested but are still waiting to see if they'll be shut down for doing so. The Health and Safety Act requires professional organisers to take personal responsibility for the safety of festival participants. Allison says testing is a "practicable step that works a lot better than sticking your head in the sand and pretending it's not happening… There's these two laws which contradict each other and what I think is probably going to happen is that as harm reduction becomes more widely accepted, more and more events are going to use [testing] as their health and safety compliance."
Allison points out that last summer 52 percent of those who found out that their drugs were not what they thought they were then decided not to take them at all. Something that has given KnowYourStuffNZ allies in unlikely places. "The Christian Women's Temperance Union apparently thought that was a good idea… When they heard that their ears pricked up and they were quite interested in what we were doing."
KnowYourStuffNZ needs another spectrometer so they can cover more ground this summer. Donate to their PledgeMe campaign here.