Early in the New Year, Police Minister Hon Stuart Nash, speaking about drug checking at festivals, said “I think they’re a fantastic idea and should be installed at all our festivals.” While this was met with cautious optimism from those seeking reform, not everyone was celebrating. An editorial in the NZ Herald raised the concern that “Testing drugs for safety can send the wrong message”. Nearly everyone agreed that we need to understand the implications before proceeding.
As the leaders of KnowYourStuffNZ, the organisation providing drug safety testing at music festivals, we would like to reassure everyone that few young people care about what message the government, or the NZ Herald, is sending about drug use. Festival-goers will continue to use drugs regardless.
KnowYourStuffNZ sends a message that festival-goers do care about, with every test we perform. The message: we don’t want people to die and we trust our clients to make safer decisions with the information we give them. People listen to our message and the results from our work are clear. When people have drugs that are contaminated or more dangerous than expected, the majority will not take them and many will destroy their drugs in front of us. For an endorsement our results, ask the medics at festivals we attend. Every single one will say how thankful they are for our service and how obvious it is that we are reducing drug-related harms.
Moralising doesn’t change people’s behaviour. Respect, useful information, and a non-judgemental stance does.
Despite their qualms, the NZ Herald rightly asks the important question – “Exactly how are these drug-testing stations at music festivals going to work?” We’ve been asking ourselves this question too and we look forward to open and evidence-based consideration of the following matters:
The legal situation for testing services needs to be clarified. For instance, we only require a tiny amount (much less than a pill) for testing. It’s never returned to the client as that would be the crime of supply. We’re fine with that. However, we would like to be allowed to be in possession of a substance so that we could take a sample away for laboratory analysis. Currently we can’t do that. We have already seen one new cathinone this summer that we could not identify using our field FT-IR spectrometer. Using a fully-equipped lab, it could have been identified.
The liability of testing services needs to be set. For instance, we never describe a sample as “safe”, as every substance has risks (except maybe the pill that was mostly toothpaste). We never describe a sample as “not contaminated”, as every testing method has limits on what it will detect. We already provide warnings about the specific drugs identified and advice on safer behaviour as a part of the testing process. Despite this, there will still be harms from drug use, even for people who have used a testing service, just are there are for any health service.
Our service and other harm reduction developments should be linked. The Government is introducing a drug early warning system, where Police, Customs, and District Health Boards provide alerts about dangerous drugs. We’ve been doing this for several years now – our January warning on n-ethylpentylone reached over 80,000 people. So how will this system work? Is everyone working in this space willing to share information? We hope so.
The required quality of testing services should be decided. We don’t want a repeat of the methamphetamine scam where any cowboy could set up testing. Right now there is no accreditation for testing services, and no formal training or qualifications for volunteers. For example, what equipment is suitable? We think that the laser spectrometers used by police at Rhythm and Vines are too likely to give false readings, whereas the FT-IR spectrometers we use are much better at distinguishing substances and mixtures. However, our spectrometers cost more than twice as much, so we can see the temptation to use cheaper equipment.
There’s also a discussion to be had about how this is funded. Currently, we are funded entirely by donations. This isn’t sustainable if, as the Police Minister Stuart Nash suggests, testing should be at all large summer festivals. That’s a major scale-up. We have been lucky to be gifted the use of our testing equipment by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, but a spectrometer runs to $50,000. That’s not possible for a volunteer-run organisation. There are a range of business models possible, from public funding as for the NZ Needle Exchange Programme, support from the Criminal Proceeds Fund, to festivals paying and on-charging in the ticket price just as they do for the portaloos. What funding model will be the best fit with this service? We don’t know yet.
To be fair, drug safety testing is an evolving field with different models used in different countries. We are working with groups in the UK and Australia to develop best practice and are happy to learn from groups in Europe who have been testing drugs for nearly twenty years.
We look forward to discussing these questions as the Government puts in place legislation to enable us to operate openly. It is in everyone’s interests to make sure that drug-testing stations at music festivals do work.