Why New Zealand Needs Legal Drug Testing at its Summer Festivals

"It will only take one super-toxic thing to emerge onto the market and we will have a lot of deaths," says KnowYourStuffNZ's Wendy Allison.

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10 January 2019, 1:26am

Wendy Allison. Image supplied 

You may have seen KnowYourStuffNZ out there this summer – the team may even have tested your drugs. The organisation has set up at five events so far this festival season, with one more confirmed and a couple of other events still pending. But Wendy Allison, the founder of the volunteer-run organisation, can’t tell us which events those are – KnowYourStuffNZ operates in a legal grey area and is wary of getting those events that have allowed them to operate onsite in any kind of trouble.

But that might be soon to change. In keeping with the Labour-led government’s general drift towards a harm-reduction model regarding drugs, Police Minister Stuart Nash recently called festival drug testing “a fantastic idea”. “The war on drugs,” he continued, “hasn’t worked in the past 20 years, so it’s time to change to a more compassionate and restorative approach.”

Nash made those comments in the wake of this year’s Rhythm & Vines festival – KnowYourStuffNZ were not operating at the Gisborne event – where police seized fake MDMA tablets containing pesticides, antibiotics and traces of paint.

VICE caught up with Wendy to find out about the potential for reform, and exactly what drugs are doing the rounds out there this festival season.

VICE: Hey Wendy. How has the season gone so far?
We’ve been at five events already this year. We had teams out at New Years and we are booked for the next three weeks running and after that we have one event confirmed and another two pending. So there is potential for us to be out pretty much every weekend this summer.

A lot of the events we’re going to are asking us back year-after-year now. They can see the changes that we are making. We talk to their medics, the medics all support us, everybody supports us, but we can’t say who they are – you can bet, when this law gets changed, and what we’re doing becomes mainstream, we will be thanking those people for being the people who were willing to take that risk to try and keep their people safe. They were the first people to stick their heads over the parapet. They deserve a pat on the back for that but they have to hide, and that’s just ridiculous.

Police Minister Stuart Nash has recently gone on the record as being in favour of drug testing at festivals. Are you optimistic about where that support might lead?
I mean it has been very, very heartening to us to see the groundswell in the last couple of years with one politician after another coming out and saying they support it. The first one was Bill English, actually, saying, ‘Well, I suppose it’s a good idea’, which was very grudging, but it was still support. And then of course we had Chlöe Swarbrick, and we’ve got a quote from Jacinda Ardern and we’ve got a quote from Helen Clark and they are all saying this is a great idea, but what we want to see is action. They can talk until they’re blue in the face but until they change the law it’s not going to be possible for many events, especially the larger ones that are in the public eye, to get us in, because they’re criminalised for doing so. It is very heartening to see the change of heart and it’s great to see them talking about health-focused policy, but we would like to see some of this hitting the ground, and we’d like to see it happening soon.

Do you believe there is the political will to make that happen?
The reality is if they don’t then it’s all a pipe dream, because events are still vulnerable. What the law is it make them technically criminals, which means they could be voiding their insurance. Or, for example, any event that’s run on public land has a clause from the territorial authorities saying the events have to be drug free. If they get us in, they acknowledge their events are not drug free and they can actually lose their venues. Something needs to be done about the law, otherwise it’s always going to end up being this cloak-and-dagger business or half-arsed approaches.

What are you noticing about the drugs out there this festival season?
It would appear that there might’ve been a drop in the percentage of substances that are what they’re supposed to be. But at this stage it’s hard to tell if that’s a significant drop, or if it’s just a blip and it will change later in the season… We’re looking at probably 20 percent of things turning out to be not what they’re supposed to be, maybe a little bit more. An interesting thing, I guess, is last year we found a lot of different cathinones [also known as 'bath salts'] in things that were supposed to be MDMA; this year, when they are not MDMA, they pretty much seem to be all N-Ethylpentylone. But the good news there is that when people find out what they’ve got, every single one of them has said they are not going to take it. We have a lot of people dropping their drugs in our destruction jar. We’ve never had somebody come to us and go ‘Yay! N-Ethylpentylone!’ They always buy it thinking it’s MDMA and then when they get it tested they decide not to take it. It is just crap that nobody wants.

The thing is, now it’s turning up mixed in with MDMA and pills. And what that means is that people who were using reagent tests to show if their stuff was a cathinone or MDMA can now no longer do that because when they are mixed together the only result they will get will tell them that their drug contains MDMA. Of course, we know because we’ve used the spectrometer [a device that pushes light through a molecule to determine exactly what it is] that a lot of these pills have N-Ethylpentylone in them as well. This, I think, is really relevant; it means that the only means of testing that is available to the general public outside of what we do is no longer useful to them.

So every year there’s new combinations out there, and people need to know what's in them.
I would think so. N-Ethylpentylone is nasty enough; we’ve already had a number of people hospitalised with it within New Zealand and there’s probably a whole lot of people who have gone to hospital. Of course, that costs the country a lot of money as well. So in my view, it’s kind of like if we really want to talk about what to do with our tax dollars, preventing that sort of thing from happening seems like a very sensible way of saving the country money. One of my colleagues put it the other day like, when those 13 people got hospitalised last year, the amount that cost the country could have bought us five spectrometers.

While there is an illicit market that rewards people for selling things that aren’t what they are supposed to be and there’s absolutely no comeback from the customer, then this is just going to continue to happen and new substances are going to keep emerging. We’re pretty lucky with N-Ethylpentylone – a few hospitalisations, and the occasional death overseas – but imagine if it was fentanyl. They are losing people left, right and centre in Canada. It will only take one super-toxic thing to emerge onto the market, spread through the country during festival season, and we will have a lot of deaths.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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