Drug Testing At Festivals

With Summer literally just on the horizon, Nexus asked former Science Boy and ASPA Award-winning writer Troy Anderson to investigate one of his favourite things, happening at one of his least favourite things. So he got in touch with Wendy Allison, the Managing Director of KnowYourStuffNZ.

Nexus: Where does drug testing take place presently?

Wendy: We currently provide the service on-site at festivals and to events who invite us, and prior to student events for participating Student Associations, and at monthly static drug checking clinics operating out of an office in Wellington.

Nexus: Is there still a reasonable amount of skepticism by people who use the service, and how do you overcome that?

Wendy: After six years of operation, most people are now aware that the service is confidential, safe, non-judgemental, and evidence-based. However first-time users are often a bit nervous, and we overcome that by ensuring our volunteers are trained to help put people at ease and assure them they are safe. We also make a point of publicising the fact that we are a non-affiliated, grassroots community organisation that is staffed entirely by volunteers. This tends to increase trust as KnowYourStuffNZ is seen as a part of the community it serves rather than as an initiative created by people from faceless government departments.

Nexus: What are common findings of drug testing?

Wendy: Our results for the last festival season are available in detail here: https://knowyourstuff.nz/our-results-2/testing-results/testing-reports/2019-2020-testing-report/

For the last couple of years, approximately 75% of samples have been ‘as presumed’. Those that aren’t as presumed are mostly complete substitutions although we do see a small percentage of samples that contain the desired substance plus something else (ie. are adulterated). The most common substitution would be Cathinones, which are often sold as MDMA and can have a variety of different risks depending on which Cathinone is present. We also regularly see samples that contain inert substances like Creatine and toothpaste. Other substitutions include a variety of psychoactive and non-psychoactive substances such as caffeine and sugar. We have never found rat poison.

Nexus: How often, post-testing do people tell you they aren’t going to take a substance?

Wendy: This graph shows our results from this season’s testing. Note  – partially consistent with presumed means the sample contained the presumed psychoactive plus other substances (additional psychoactives, impurities, or non-psychoactive pharmaceutical or herbal substances). In a few cases, the client thought they had a mix of two psychoactives, but the sample in fact contained only one.

Nexus: How do you respond to claims that drug testing normalises and even tacitly endorses the taking of illicit substances?

Wendy: We refer people to the fact that drug checking has been taking place in Europe for over 20 years and the programmes been reviewed regularly throughout this time. None of the reviews have found that drug checking has any impact (either increase or reduction)  on the incidence of drug use. We also point out that clients who use our service have already decided to use drugs, but that our data shows a significant number then choose not to use them when they find out what’s in them (see graph). So the presence of drug checking does not in fact result in more drug use, which makes any claims of endorsement pretty unfounded.

Our client surveys (https://knowyourstuff.nz/our-results-2/survey-reports/2019-2020-survey-report/)  show that for a large majority of our clients, using the service is the first time they have discussed their drug use with anyone other than their friends, which means we are accessing people who would not otherwise receive harm reduction information and would simply go ahead and use drugs. We are increasingly being told by clients that after using the service, they are changing their approach to drug use to incorporate better risk management and safer behaviours.

Additionally, it is clear that the “Don’t use drugs” messaging historically favoured by authorities is not working for many people. We are reaching a community for whom the standard messaging is not working, and we are having an impact on their behaviour that means they are less likely to die. Our work is pragmatic and is focused on what people actually do, not what they should do. We are agnostic about drug use because moralising about drug use does not help anyone or change behaviour, and we believe that keeping kids alive is more important.

In conclusion, our focus is mainly on reducing harm rather than reducing use, and it appears that our work is effective.  People with better information make better decisions, whether that is to not use drugs or to use them more safely.

Nexus: Has this largely been a service used by younger people or are there a reasonable proportion of over 30s that use the service?

Wendy: Here’s a graph showing service use by age for last season. Note that this varies considerably depending on which events we attend, however, every year we’ve surveyed we’ve found that at least 50% of our clients are over 25.

Nexus: Has finance through the form of donations been sustainable for your organisation so far?

Wendy: In the last couple of years, demand has exceeded supply in terms of our ability to finance the service purely from public donations. We now ask commercial events who request the service at their event to make a substantial donation to help cover our costs. This is a suitable interim measure, however in order to be sustainable into the future while meeting the growing demand, the logical model would be to charge as an infrastructure service at events similar to medics, security, or sanitation, and for the cost to be on-charged to clients through ticket price.

Nexus: Are you hopeful that the work that you do will gain lawful recognition in the near future?  What legislative changes would need to happen to make that possible?

Wendy: For lawful recognition, we require changes to the MoDA and/or regulations stemming from it to:

– protect our clients from risk of harassment by authorities when using the service (Section 7)

– protect event organisers from criminalisation for acknowledgement that drugs are used at their events 

(Section 12)

There are a number of ways this could be done – we favour the inclusion of a clause allowing for the operation of harm reduction services as this aligns with the harm reduction focus of the National Drug Policy.

The government has vocally supported updating legislation to make our work explicitly legal, and to remove the risks to event organisers who get us in that is created by Section 12. We are confident that should the current government be re-elected, this work will move forward.

Nexus: What sort of policy or policies do you think would result in the minimisation or elimination of financially/socially/medically dangerous drug usage and abuse?

Wendy: This is a very broad question that is a bit beyond the scope of what KnowYourStuffNZ does. The issue we address is the lack of any checks and balances in the illicit market – no quality control, no product labelling, no recourse for people if the product is not ‘as advertised’. These issues all arise from the fact that drugs are in demand but the market is entirely unregulated, leading to a situation where criminals can sell anything and people will just buy it and hope it’s ok.

Portugal has had some success in reducing harm associated with drugs in general through decriminalisation of personal use and possession of all drugs. However, the illicit market still exists in Portugal, and the associated problems of substitution and adulteration have therefore not gone away. The notion of a legal and regulated market for drugs is controversial however this does seem to be the direction indicated by research so far, as it has emerged that prohibition of drugs is not effectively reducing use or harm.

KnowYourStuffNZ is an evidence-based, data driven harm reduction organisation, so we encourage policymakers to consider the question “Does the evidence show that this policy reduces drug harm?” when reviewing policy. We believe that the Misuse of Drugs Act is out of date and not fit for purpose, and would like to see a complete review of the law to align it with harm reduction principles and base it on evidence of what actually works.

Nexus: Have you ever been harassed or actively discouraged by law enforcement or other authorities while doing your work?

Wendy: No. Law enforcement have taken a hands-off, discretionary approach to our work, and have so far let us get on with it without interference.

Nexus: Any additional information that you think would be valuable to promote about your organisation?

Wendy: I think there are a lot of myths out there about drug checking – by necessity we’ve had to operate somewhat under the radar and until we achieve explicitly legal status there will be an air of mystery about the work that creates an ideal environment for rumours and falsehoods to grow. Unfortunately even some politicians seem to have fallen prey to these rumours. For example, many people believe that a person walks in, hands us a pill, we test it then hand it back regardless of the result. In fact, none of this is true. We never take possession of the samples and the client must do all the preparation and handling themselves. We also do not give the sample back – the client may choose how much substance they provide as a sample, in the knowledge that whatever is provided will be destroyed after testing. And we never tell people their drugs are safe – instead we outline the risks associated with the result, and help people better understand the potential impact of what they are about to do.

There are a number of such myths about the service, and we counter them by being as transparent as we can about our processes. All of the information about what we do and how we do it is on our website, including all data collected. We wrote a mythbuster piece last year to try and help people understand: https://knowyourstuff.nz/2019/10/08/9-facts-to-dispel-myths-about-drug-checking/

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