2019-2020: Cathinones and high-dose MDMA still prevalent

Drug checking results from the 2019-2020 festival season have now been analysed. This summer, KnowYourStuffNZ volunteers tested 1,368 samples of illicit substances brought voluntarily for testing at 22 events. This is a substantial increase from last summer.

Overall, almost 1 in 10 samples were not what the owner thought they were. When a substance was found to be not what the owner thought it was 52% of people said that they would not take the substance.

Image, Chart of intentions to take when substances were as presumed, and when substances was not as presumed
Intentions stated after testing. CC BY-NC-ND

2% of the substances thought to be MDMA were found to contain the cathinones n-ethylpentylone or eutylone. N-ethylpentylone has been associated with deaths overseas and mass hospitalisation in New Zealand. Eutylone has been found throughout New Zealand in the last 18 months, and is a fairly new substance with unknown risks. Testing also revealed that 1 in 20 MDMA pills tested contained two or more doses of MDMA.

Responses to a client survey showed that 80% of respondents have had past experiences with drugs that were not what they were thought to be, describing unpleasant and frightening experiences. Our analysis has consistently shown that people are much less likely to take a substance when testing shows it is not what they thought it was, and 85% of surveyed clients said that after using the service they are more likely to get drugs tested before taking them.

The survey also showed significant support for expansion of the service, with requests for it to be available both at all major festivals and at regular clinics throughout the year in NZ cities. These statements align with those of Police Minister Stuart Nash, who has been a vocal supporter of our work.

To view the results in full, please visit the 2019-2020 Testing Report page and the 2019-2020 Survey Report page.

Huge thanks to Andrea Knox, Katie Double and Rhiannon Davies, who prepared these reports, and also to Ali Maguire for quality assurance.

KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.

Be a K know-it-all

At KnowYourStuffNZ we’ve seen quite a bump in the use of ketamine over this festival season (pardon the pun). As we’re responsible ponies who like to make everybody safer, we want to give some easy to digest, legit information about K: no horse-play here. 

Here’s what our friends at The Loop have to say:

“Ketamine is what is known as a dissociative anaesthetic which gives users a sense of detachment from their body and surroundings.”

It’s usually found as a white powder and taken in ‘bumps’ by snorting up the nose (insufflation). A common dose is around 50-80mg, with anything over that considered a strong or heavy dose.

Effects start trotting along within 7-20 minutes, hitting a gallop at about 30-60 minutes, and after-effects lasting from 2-12 hours. Ketamine is still in your system even after you stop feeling effects so having more can produce stronger effects than expected.

Let’s get it all lined up for easy consumption:

Effects Include:Risks Include:
Feeling light and bouncy as a foalAccidents while intoxicated
DelusionsDisturbing hallucinations
Visual hallucinationsPsychosis
Vomiting (Especially if combined with alcohol)Nasal damage
At high doses it leads to the “K-hole”: Users seem unresponsive to others, but experience vivid hallucinationsSlowed breathing, inability to look after yourself, vomiting and potentially death

In our work testing and giving out advice at festivals around Aotearoa, we’ve noticed that a lot more people are horsing around with ketamine in 2020, and a correlated upswing in reports of ketamine-related harm.

Some people are ending up in the K-hole even when they don’t want to, by repeatedly ‘bumping’ the same amount or increasing amounts. The cumulative effect is something to really be aware of friends: reduce the size of each bump if you are going to repeat dose.

Don’t mix ketamine with other drugs: depressants like alcohol increase the risk of passing out and choking on your own vomit. When mixed with stimulants like MDMA it can cause blood pressure spikes. 

If you are seeking the K-hole make sure you are with people you trust. Have a designated   trip-sitter, or at least someone who’s not also K-holing, to make sure you aren’t a victim of “foal play” while you’re incapacitated.

A significant number of regular users experience bladder problems – including UTI’s, cystitis, and a risk of ulcerated bladder requiring bladder removal. We recommend keeping K special and your bladder intact by using it only occasionally.

Once again, because we’ve seen it a lot: don’t mix Ketamine with alcohol. One of the biggest risks is impaired judgement from alcohol mixed with the lack of coordination and dissociation from Ket, leading to all sorts of bad times.

Remember folks, we do regular free drug testing with an infrared spectrometer in various cities around the country: don’t look this gift horse in the mouth! Be sure of what you’re putting in your body.

Sources (of information):

Wash your hands, cough into your elbow and don’t take MDMA – advice for a pandemic

As COVID-19 progresses through New Zealand it’s important to understand how we all have a responsibility to help protect ourselves and others. We each have a responsibility to both stop the spread and flatten the curve, and part of that is being aware there are some ways that taking MDMA can increase your risk of infection.

How can MDMA increase your risk of contracting COVID-19?  

External: where you are and how you act  

  • The environment you take it in – crowded parties or packed festivals with close contact to multiple people around you makes disease transmission far easier. While we are at Level 4 this shouldn’t be a consideration, but remember one of the most effective ways to minimise the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing.
  • The changes to your behaviour – empathogenic effects of MDMA can lead to feelings of closeness and craving for interpersonal intimacy. This makes social distancing harder to practice when using MDMA.

Internal: what happens inside your body 

MDMA is an immunosuppressant, meaning it temporarily weakens your immune system.

How? You can think of MDMA as changing the “chemical background” under which your immune system functions. It makes sense that a substance that would change your brain’s chemistry would also change the chemistry of other parts of your body. 

This change of the chemical background leads to suppression of the activity of disease fighting cells. It also alters patterns of release for chemicals that transport information around your body about where infection is, and the most effective way to fight it. 

Remember COVID-19 affects people with weakened immune systems more harshly. Weakening your immune system makes you both more likely to both contract and spread the virus.

The immunosuppressant effects of MDMA last for about the same length of time as the drug stays in your body – up to 48 hours.

Long term effects of MDMA on the immune system. 

People that take MDMA regularly tend to have higher rates of general illness and infection. A 2002 study from the Recreational Drugs Research Group of East London University found that 9% of people that took MDMA 10-99 times, and 35% of people that took MDMA over 100 times reported increased infections. If you take MDMA on a regular basis consider yourself more vulnerable to illness and make sure to follow the Ministry Of Health recommendations to keep yourself safe.

image, large number of yellow pressed MDMA pills in the shape of Iron Man's helmet
If you’re going to take them, save them for Level 1! Image by Know Your Stuff CC-BY-NC-ND

Harm reduction for the next few months 

Remember that the only way to guarantee safety from drug harm is to not use drugs. Due to COVID-19 this is especially true right now, as the risk of harm to both you and your community are increased.

However if you choose to take MDMA, we suggest you do the following:

  • Treat taking drugs similarly to preparing food: Wash your hands for 20 seconds, and wipe down all surfaces that will come into contact with what you are going to take
  • Avoid snorting MDMA. Sharing straws or banknotes is a surefire way of passing viruses on to your friends, as well as damaging the lining of your nostrils which makes you more susceptible to infection. Don’t share other equipment such as bongs, pipes, straws, etc
  • After taking MDMA, your immune system will be compromised for at least 48 hours. Be extra cautious and double down on Ministry of Health guidelines for safety. The highest risk to you is while you’re high, as this is when the effects on your immune system are strongest. 
  • Ideally you will already have the next day set aside for comedown. Consider extending and using this time to keep yourself socially isolated and let your body readjust. 
  • Remember that MDMA causes hypersociability, but now is not the time for group hugs, cuddle puddles or other forms of close contact with people outside your bubble. Social distancing is here to stay for the next little while, so avoid large crowds such as festivals or parties where you will come into close contact with large amounts of people.

Remember that this is not just about avoiding getting sick yourself. COVID-19 spreads very effectively from person to person, so risks you take are not just personal, but they could affect other people and members of your community. Stay in your bubble and look out for your friends, neighbours, and fellow humans. This will pass and we have to keep ourselves and the people around us safe until it does.

Sources and further reading
(American/opioid based but still key points) 

Acute effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine alone and in combination with ethanol on the immune system in humans.

Ecstasy/MDMA attributed problems reported by novice, moderate and heavy recreational users.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘Ecstasy’)-induced immunosuppression: a cause for concern?

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ‘Ecstasy’): a stressor on the immune system


Media roundup for 2019/20 festival season

KnowYourStuffNZ has been in the news a lot this season, both here and abroad. We’ve collected all the news together for easy reference. Just follow the links below.

If you’re a journalist and want to talk to us, please head to the Media FAQ page for details on how to get in touch.


Inside the drug-testing tent at Splore music festival – Josephine Franks, stuff.co.nz 25/02/2020

Drug testing openly available at Splore music festival – Nicole Bremner, 1 News 22/02/2020

Universities called on to make drug testing kits available during Orientation Week – Steven Walton, stuff.co.nz 16/02/2020


Pingers, parties and politics: How festival drug testers are trying to save lives – Josephine Franks, stuff.co.nz 31/12/2019


Research into drug checking impacts – New Zealand Government press release, scoop.co.nz 18/12/2019


NZ First to reconsider position on drug testing – Jo Moir, rnz.co.nz 20/10/2019


The drug testing dilemma – how we are getting around it – The Detail, rnz.co.nz 16/10/2019


Legalising testing of drugs at festivals has overwhelming support, 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll finds – 1 News 16/10/2019


Prohibition or preventing harm? Q+A debates festival pill-testing – NZQandA TVNZ, 07/10/2019


Poll: Do you support testing of drugs at festivals? – Newshub poll 07/10/2019


Three people critical after taking bad drugs at Listen In Auckland dance concert – Tom Dillane, NZ Herald 05/10/2019


Drug Testing w / Wendy Allison: October 1, 2019 – Radio interview, BFM


The NZ First MP’s bizarre campaign against ‘saving lives’ – The Spinoff


Police minister’s plan to legalise pill testing at summer festivals derailed as NZ First says it encourages drug use – 1 News 29/09/2019


How Kiwis’ drugs are being tested before they have the chance to do harm – Ruby Macandrew, stuff.co.nz 23/08/2019


Festival care: Who’s looking after you – Leith Huffadine, rnz.co.nz 27/02/2019


O-Week testing shows 1 in 5 drugs not what buyer expected – rnz.co.nz 25/02/2019


Festival organisers wary of inviting drug-testing group – Charlotte Cook, rnz.co.nz 22/02/2019


Lee Suckling: Are music festivals unsafe? – Lee Suckling, NZ Herald 28/01/2019


What’s really in that pill? The festival drug testing debate – Te Ao Māori News, 25/01/2019


Free drug testing in spotlight as festival season kicks off – Laine Moger, stuff.co.nz 25/01/2019


Festival drug testing – Expert Reaction – Dr. Jez Weston, Science Media Centre 25/01/2019


Wendy Allison and Duncan Garner TV interview – The AM Show, TV 3 22/01/2019


Why New Zealand Needs Legal Drug Testing at its Summer Festivals – James Borrowdale, Vice 10/01/2019


Dr Cathy Stephenson: Telling your kids to stay away from drugs can backfire – Dr Cathy Stephenson, stuff.co.nz 08/01/2019


No room for vagueness in drug testing at music festivals – Russell Brown, rnz.co.nz 04/01/2019


Editorial: It’s high time for drug testing – stuff.co.nz 04/01/2019


Testing shows MDMA pills laced with bath salts – rnz.co.nz 03/01/2019


Summer festival drugs ‘designed to baffle tests’ – rnz.co.nz 03/01/2019 (Radio interview)


Minister backs festival drug tests – gisbourneherald.co.nz  03/01/2019


What is pill testing, and why is it so controversial? – Yan Zhuang, Sydney Morning Herald 03/01/2019


Police Minister Stuart Nash wants drug testing kits at all music festivals by next summer – Jason Walls, NZ Herald 02/01/2019



Here comes festival season, where dodgy drugs thrive thanks to a dumb law – Wendy Allison, The Spinoff 25/10/2018


Drug testing at music festivals – Jesse Mulligan, rnz.co.nz 15/10/2018 (Radio interview)


High point: Drug test change at music festivals – Isaac Davidson and Tom Dillane, NZ Herald 30/09/2018


Festival-goers warned of drug testing kit effectiveness – Charlie Dreaver, rnz.co.nz 07/04/2018

Results from our static drug checking trial look promising

The results of our pilot drug checking service are in, and they show it’s a worthwhile service that people will utilise to make safer choices about their drug use.

There’s no such thing as completely safe drug use, we all know that. But that doesn’t stop some people – especially young people – from taking drugs regardless, without knowing what’s in them or the harm they could cause.

KnowyourStuffNZ volunteers have been carrying out festival drug checking for many years. But drug taking is not limited to summer or festivals, so last July we joined with the Drug Foundation to begin operating regular drug checking services at an inner city location – the Drug Foundation’s Wellington office.

The results of this initial phase are out, and we’ve collected enough information to say it’s worthwhile to continue and hopefully expand the service.

All drug use is potentially harmful. But the real harm comes from using an unknown substance, using too much, or using it in a harmful way.

Drug checking aims to clear the air. To get some information into the equation, and hopefully save lives. Attendence started out low, but numbers have risen steadily – and that’s important.

It means people want to talk about drugs, and they want to be safer. Drug checking is a unique opportunity to share tailored harm reduction advice so clients can make better, more informed, safer decisions about their drug use.

Here are the results, in a nutshell:

Since last July we’ve tested 112 samples, and we’re pleased to say that most of them (77 percent) were exactly what the client expected. But that means 16.5 were not. Three percent of those unknown substances turned out to be synthetic cathinones – two of them the highly dangerous n-ethylpentylone which left multiple people hospitalisesd in 2018.

Most clients thought they had MDMA (ecstasy). As always, upon discovering it wasn’t what they thought, most said they were no longer planning to take the substance.

Participants are reminded that the safest option is to not take a substance at all.

Full report below, click to magnify:


Link to NZ Drug Foundation’s release and report

KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.