New Zealand Becomes First Country in the World To Fully Legalise Drug Checking

New legislation will allow people to test illicit substances at music festivals and beyond. Experts say it will save lives.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
woman holding pills
The world-first law has been praised by harm reduction advocates both locally and overseas. Photo by keira01, via Getty Images

New Zealand has become the first country in the world to permanently legalise drug checking services, which will allow individuals to test the safety of illicit substances at festivals and other locations without the fear of legal repercussions.

The new legislation replaces a previous law, introduced on a trial basis 12 months earlier, that legalised the services temporarily and was set to expire at the end of the year. The permanent extension of that law passed its third reading last week, and is set to come into effect on December 7, in a move that has been widely praised by experts and advocacy groups.

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“It's really significant and a moment to celebrate,” Sarah Helm, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, told VICE World News. “This will prevent harm and save lives. Drug checking is a hugely effective harm reduction tool as it gives people accurate information to make safer decisions. We'd now like to see services expand to reach more people.”

A particularly noteworthy detail of the new law, Helm explained, is that it won’t restrict drug checking to just music festivals – thus opening the door for service providers to expand their availability to more vulnerable communities, via pop-up clinics in urban centres and alongside other health and social services.

“Drug checking has been happening in New Zealand for a number of years in a legal grey area, so the idea isn't new and the public debate has been won,” she said. “People can see that it is a no-brainer if we want to reduce harm.”

Others, however, are less enthused about the development – particularly members of New Zealand’s National party, which exclusively opposed the bill, with 33 votes against 88. National's Justice spokesperson Simon Bridges criticised the new laws and pushed a “Just say no” approach, claiming “​​The only message that really stops fatalities is that no pill is safe,” according to RNZ. “There's no such thing as a safe ecstasy or a safe dose of some of the other drugs that may in time be able to be tested. That's, in effect, what the coroner has said very recently.”

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“I say drugs aren't just a health issue. Yes, they are a health issue, but they're also ... a criminal justice issue, because of the harm they cause, the misery they cause.”

Drug checking and pill testing services have proven to be the subject of much contention over the past few years, as jurisdictions in countries around the world weigh the purported benefits against the perceived risks. Many detractors claim that legally permitting people to test illicit substances like MDMA, without allowing authorities to intervene and confiscate them, amounts to a tacit endorsement of illegal drug-taking behaviour. Many supporters argue that this is a simplistic view, and point to a growing body of evidence that indicates drug checking makes sense from the perspectives of public health and harm reduction.

Among them is an independent report on a pill testing trial at an Australian music festival found that of 170 substances tested from more than 230 participants, seven “MDMA” pills contained the potentially deadly drug N-ethyl pentylone. Every individual who was told their pills contained that substance made the decision to discard their drugs. The report also suggested that most young people had never spoken to a health professional about their illicit drug use before attending the drug checking services.

“When they came in, they told us they were often getting their health information about illicit drug use from their peers, friends and dealers,” Dr Anna Olsen, a senior researcher at the Australian National University medical school and a lead researcher on the report, told newsGP. “When they left, they said they were much more likely to look at health services and brochures and quality places for their health information, which is a good news story.”

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Another report that looks into drug checking trials in New Zealand, published in February 2021, found that 68 percent of people surveyed reported changing their behaviour after using the service. Of those, 87 percent further claimed that their knowledge of harm reduction had improved.The government also announced last month that it would contribute $800,000 NZD ($545,581 USD) towards the national coordination of services, training of drug checkers and providing information about drug harms.

Around the world, other advocacy groups commended New Zealand’s progressiveness on this front.

“Drug testing is now more vital than ever, as the risks from unpredictable drug strength and purity seem to be getting worse. We are seeing more novel substances entering an ever more chaotic and risky illegal trade,” Steve Rolles, of UK-based non profit Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told VICE World News. “While the counterproductive drug war continues to rage, testing and related harm reduction is one of the last lines of defense we have between consumers and the avoidable risks of a completely unregulated drug market.”

“New Zealand's approach is refreshingly pragmatic – not just acknowledging the benefits of testing services but establishing a bespoke legislative framework to deliver them effectively. Other countries, including the UK … should learn from and follow New Zealand's example.”

“We are always looking overseas to see what is working, so hopefully this can inspire some change elsewhere,” Helm of the NZ Drug Foundation added. “There are lots of places where drug checking is happening in the kind of grey area that used to exist in New Zealand, so we hope that lawmakers around the world will look to this law as an example of a practical step they can take to reduce harm.”

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