The full results of last year's festival drug-testing are in, and a number of drugs are making a new entry to the New Zealand market.
Independent organisation Know Your Stuff NZ provided free drug testing at eight events and festivals around New Zealand last summer. Alarmingly, a full 30 percent of the drugs tested weren't what the users thought they were taking. While 30 percent is still significant, the good news is that it's well down on the last two years: in the 2015/16 summer festival season, 60 percent of drugs were not as expected and in the 2014/15, it was 80 percent.
This year, the majority of people thought they had MDMA or LSD, with the largest chunk thinking they'd bought MDMA. Only about 70 percent of those who believed they had MDMA actually did. If their drugs weren't consistent with what they thought they had, the most common substitute was some variety of cathinone—known as 'bath salts'. New Zealand had its first recorded fatality from cathinone last year. This year's lot also showed two new, previously unseen varieties of cathinone—a development which the testers described as "alarming".
In previous years, up to half of what people thought was LSD was actually NBOMe, or 'N-bomb' - a much more dangerous drug. In Australia earlier this year, three people died and 20 were hospitalised after a batch of what was thought to be MDMA. The drug killing Australians turned out to be NBOMe, cut with 4-Fluoroamphetamine (4-FA) and other psychoactive substances. NBOMe thickens the blood and thins the blood vessels, medical school lecturer Dr David Caldicott told VICE, "This is the main catalyst behind a range of other issues including ventricular fibrillation leading to heart attack, renal failure, and even stroke. These are conditions that no self-respecting 20-something year old is normally entitled to have."
NBOMe's blood clotting effect, overall toxicity, and extreme potency make it unique among hallucinogens, Caldicott said, and users were far more vulnerable to fatal overdose.
Thankfully, this year, the amount of NBOMe substituted for LSD was down to 10 percent, but drug testers still urged caution and advised prospective LSD-takers to have their drugs tested first.
The newcomers to New Zealand's drug market included n-ethylpentylone, which testers found at every event where they took the spectrometer. "N-ethylpentylone appeared on the illicit market in mid-2016 and its physiological and toxicological effects have not yet been characterised, making it extremely risky to ingest," testers said. The drug showed up last year at UK Festivals being sold as MDMA, with a number of festival-goers receiving urgent medical attention. It's been connected to a spate of deaths in South Africa, keeps users awake for up to 36 hours, and causes vomiting, hyperthermia and increased heart rate.
The drug testers also found two distinct new cathinones that have not yet been identified or seen by other drug checking organisations overseas.
Finally, this year 1 percent of the substances tested contained zero drugs at all—instead, people had been sold sugar or crushed aspirin.
Drug testing in New Zealand currently exists in a kind of legal grey area.
"In terms of what we do, it's not explicitly illegal, nor is it explicitly legal," Know Your Stuff NZ director Wendy Allison told VICE.
She said while the testers were not breaking laws, people in possession of drugs could technically be done for possession, and festival organisers are also criminalised if they admit people at their event use drugs. Other harm reduction strategies like needle exchanges have the same legal challenges, she said.
Currently, police were not overtly supporting drug testing at festivals, but they were using their discretion. "They don't condone it or condemn it," Allison said.
The Misuse of Drugs Act is up for review in the next few years, and the group would like to see an exemption introduced for harm reduction strategies like drug testing and needle exchanges.
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