Survey of KYSNZ clients shows that users of drug checking services take harm reduction advice on board

by Andrea Knox, Evaluation Consultant

KnowYourStuffNZ is driven by evidence. For the last few years we’ve been recording our drug checking results, reporting those results publicly, and using them to improve our processes and advocacy.

But while we have a lot of evidence about the substances we find and the decisions people make about those substances, we don’t have a lot of data about who we’re reaching. What kinds of people use our services, how do they feel about it, and what experiences have they had with drugs previously?

n-ethylpentylone

This year, to answer those questions, we surveyed people while they queued for testing. Many thanks to our super-smart volunteer who suggested this approach!

We ran a 10-question survey on a tablet using SurveyAnyplace (which has an offline mode that ran seamlessly, even way out the back of wherethefuckarewe). We also developed what we called a “stories box”, into which people could post handwritten descriptions of their experiences with drugs and drug checking. Both activities were optional and anonymous.

What did we find out? You can see our full report on the Our Results page . Here are some key points.

  • The people we reach are young, but not as young as you might assume. Half were under 25, half over 25, and one in 20 were 45 or older.
  • We are reaching new people – 82% of our clients saw us for the first time this year.
  • We are reaching people who have no prior experience with drug health or harm reduction services – 89% said that KnowYourStuffNZ was their first contact with such a service.
  • A worryingly high proportion of people – 75% of our clients, have had experiences with taking drugs that were not what they were supposed to be. Experiences range from unpleasant: “stayed awake to long”, to very serious: “Ambulance had to be called”.
  • We seem to be making a longer term difference to how people approach drugs. 87% of people who had previously used our services said that their approach to taking drugs had changed as a result. People said that they were more motivated to test drugs and less willing to take risks. Interestingly, people didn’t say that they were unaware of drug-associated risks before seeing us. No-one said: I just didn’t know drugs could be so risky! Their comments show that they were already aware of risk, but thought they had to accept this when choosing to take drugs. KnowYourStuffNZ has demonstrated that risks can be mitigated and don’t have to be accepted.
  • There is a great deal of support for drug checking among the people who use our services. We already knew that because they tell us this when we meet them, but it was lovely to see so many positive comments about our work and calling for greater support of drug checking in New Zealand.
  • And then there was this comment, which moved KnowYourStuffNZ’s Managing Director to tears and made us realise that all the hard work was worth it: “You saved someone’s life tonight”.
KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded entirely by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.

Mid-season update – what drugs are at festivals this summer

This season, much like last summer, has seen more n-ethylpentylone and more high dose MDMA.

N-ethylpentylone has become the main adulterant in MDMA and our main substance of concern. N-ethylpentylone is in the cathinone family of drugs, sometimes referred to as “bath salts.” In previous years we’ve seen all sorts of different substances sold as MDMA. This year vast majority of substitutions have been only n-ethylpentylone, a drug that we’ve heard called “a shit time for a long time.”

If a sample is presumed to be MDMA but tests show that it’s not, it is most likely n-ethylpentylone. A new development has been a number of samples of both pressed pills and crystal which contain MDMA mixed with n-ethylpentylone, a combination which led to us issuing an alert just after New Year about blue crown pills. These mixtures will appear to be MDMA in a reagent test, but could lead to unexpected consequences including anxiety, heart palpitations, and insomnia. N-ethylpentylone has been implicated in two deaths overseas and numerous mass hospitalisations, including in New Zealand. You can read more about n-ethylpentylone on our website.

We have also seen a continuation of the pressed pills containing 2-3 doses of MDMA. Pink Porsches, Green Guccis, Yellow Rolexes, and Blue Louis Vuitton pills are all still around, and should be approached with extreme caution. We also have some evidence that these pills are now being copied. Copycat pills could contain anything, including toothpaste, so we recommend testing even with a ‘known’ press. New high-dose pills we have tested include a pink pill shaped like a Canadian maple leaf that is estimated to contain 3 standard doses of MDMA. Even taking less than a whole pill has resulted in people needing medical attention this summer, so treat these with caution.

There is also a lot of supposedly MDMA crystal around that tests as MDMA. Care should be taken with this – even when a substance is what you are hoping for, it’s still not “safe”. Measuring doses by eye is a particularly unsafe practice in the current climate, as is snorting.

We recommend approaching even tested substances with extreme caution. Start small – half or less than the dose you would normally take – and start slow – wait at least an hour to gauge the effects before considering  having more. We also recommend against snorting these substances. It’s damaging to your nose, the effects will wear off faster, and you may be be tempted to take more. It’s more harmful and more expensive, so if you are taking anything, oral is the safer route.

This summer we have also been asked by event medics to let people know that they shouldn’t be afraid to seek them out if they do get into difficulties. The medics want you to know they are there to help, and they will do it in confidence. If you are at all concerned about your wellbeing at an event, please go see them.

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

KnowYourStuffNZ drug checking results for 2017/2018 festival season

In a summer that saw New Zealand’s first mass hospitalisation at a dance party due to fake MDMA, our testing has identified more new psychoactive substances than ever before.

In partnership with NZ Drug Foundation, we used FTIR spectroscopy and reagents at seven festivals to test 445 samples of illicit drugs brought in voluntarily by users, an increase of over 100 since last year.  We found that the overall percentage of samples that were ‘as presumed’ increased from 68% to 79%, driven largely by an increase in the quantity of genuine MDMA alongside a higher proportion of MDMA among the samples tested.

In other words, we have seen more MDMA and more of it has been real – nearly 60% of samples brought in for testing were presumed to be MDMA, up from just over 50% last season.  Of these, the percentage that were actually MDMA increased from 63% to 83%.

However, people should not assume the market is safer than last year. We have also seen pills containing very high doses of MDMA , n-ethylpentylone sold as MDMA, and several new substances – a few of which we couldn’t identify. These all have the potential to be very dangerous.

We identified 44 different psychoactive substances in samples this season, 12 of which were cathinones (“bath salts”). 40% of samples that were not as presumed were cathinones  – and one third of those were n-ethylpentylone. In 9 cases, cathinones and other substances were found mixed in with MDMA.

KnowYourStuffNZ issued an alert about n-ethylpentylone  in February, a week prior to the hospitalisation of 13 people who inadvertently took the drug at an event in Christchurch.  This season our testing prevented several other groups from taking n-ethylpentylone that they thought was MDMA. The Christchurch hospitalisations may also have been prevented if those people had access to drug checking.

Ross Bell, Executive Director of NZ Drug Foundation, agrees: “These results strengthen the case for essential drug checking services to be provided at more festivals, events and clubs, and highlight the urgent need for the government to establish its Early Warning System for drugs and to incorporate drug checking services into that system.”

The good news is that when a sample was not as presumed, 58% of clients then said they would not take it – a result consistent with previous years.  This is a no-brainer – when you give people accurate information about drugs, they make better choices.

This year 70% of KnowYourStuffNZ’s clients said that seeing us is the first time they have talked to a drug-related health service about their drug use – evidence that drug checking has an important role in reducing harm to a community that is not seen by other services.

Drug checking is gaining support overseas, with Australia’s ACT government planning to expand pill testing at events after a successful trial in May, and the UK Home Office last week stating that drug checking services are legal and it will not stand in the way of initiatives there. It’s now time the New Zealand government acted to support drug checking here. We have been doing this for four years with consistently good results, yet Australia is a long way ahead in terms of official support and taking action on needed law changes. They are putting us to shame.

More detailed results can be found on the ‘Our Results’ page.

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

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Deliberately Deceptive Drug Mixtures Found This Summer

Testing by KnowYourStuffNZ this summer has revealed that some festival goers have been sold deliberately deceptive mixtures of drugs. Some mixtures were sold as MDMA but contained only small amounts of MDMA alongside more toxic chemicals. Some mixtures were sold as cocaine but instead contained mixes of stimulants and anaesthetics.

Our testing has shown that the quality of substances sold on the illicit market is variable and poor. In many cases, substances sold are not as expected. However, this summer we have seen mixtures that appear to be made up to deliberately mislead people.

For example, cocaine produces a numbing effect in the nose and mouth. We have seen mixtures that contain no cocaine at all but only benzocaine and cathinones (“bath salts”). The benzocaine (a local anaesthetic found in cough lozenges) produces the numbing effect; the cathinones duplicate the stimulant effects. In these cases, the cathinones were n-ethylbuphedrone and ethylmethcathinone, which have longer duration and more toxic effects than cocaine.

Several samples supposedly of MDMA were a mix of MDMA and cathinones. We believe that these mixtures were made up to fool reagent testing – the MDMA produces dark colours with commonly-available reagent tests, masking the colours from the unwanted cathinones. These combinations are particularly risky due to the different potencies of these substances. One sample seen was 50/50 mix of MDMA and n-ethylpentylone (a new substance that we called “this summer’s crap drug”). An active dose of MDMA is around 100 mg; a dose of n-ethylpentylone is 30 mg. If someone weighs out 100 mg of this mixture, they will take nearly two doses of n-ethylpentylone (already a risky dose) and only half a dose of MDMA..

Inevitably, unregulated markets have poor quality control and unscrupulous dealers will sell products that maximise their profits, putting consumers’ health at risk. Pill testing allows drug users to discover the quality of their purchases and avoid these risks.  We recommend that all drug users test before they ingest any substance.

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KnowYourStuffNZ uses both reagent testing and infra-red spectrometry to discover these mixtures. However, an infra-red spectrometer costs $50,000 and this is not accessible outside of events that KnowYourStuffNZ attends.

Reagents for testing are available for much more affordable prices from suppliers such as Hempstore, but as the mixtures found this summer demonstrate, reagents have their limits. They would have identified the substitute cocaine; they would not have detected the adulterated MDMA. We still recommend reagent testing to drug users despite the limitations, as some testing is better than none – however the results from reagent testing are no guarantee and all substances should be approached with caution.

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

Final results for 2016/2017 now available

After a massive effort from the team and a rerun of a number of spectra to capture database updates, we are now able to publish our final results for the 2016/2017 season.

n-ethylpentylone

This year’s emerging substance group of concern at events is the cathinone family, a group of related substances that are often substituted for MDMA.   A particular worry is n-ethylpentylone, which we found at every event to which we 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.  Additionally, we found two distinct new cathinones that have not yet been identified in the TICTAC database, and have not been seen by other drug checking organisations overseas.

Good news is that we found fewer samples of NBOMe substituted for LSD, however it is still around and extreme caution is advised.   We are aware that GHB is making a comeback in popularity, although the only sample we’ve seen tested as GBL.

We are expecting and preparing for Fentanyl, which has been implicated in a large number of deaths overseas, to arrive in New Zealand soon.  Fentanyl has been found as an adulterant in a wide range of substances used recreationally in other countries, and the risk of contamination of the New Zealand illicit market is high, therefore our advice is to always test a substance before using it.

To see the updated results for the 2016/2017 season, go to Our Results or click the picture above.  For further information, to volunteer, or to book KnowYourStuffNZ for an event, please contact us.

KnowYourStuffNZ carries out drug checking at events in conjunction with New Zealand Drug Foundation, who own the FT-IR spectrometer we use.

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