2019 – 2020 Testing report

KnowYourStuffNZ provides drug related harm reduction services at events around New Zealand, including drug checking. The result of every test is recorded and each year we collate our results across the event season, analysing:

  • what people thought they had,
  • what they actually had, and
  • what decisions they made about taking the substances

KnowYourstuff activity, 2019-20

This season’s data covers the period from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020. KnowYourStuffNZ was at 22 events during this period and tested a total of 1368 samples.
This is a 70% increase on the number of samples we tested in 2018-19.
KnowYourStuffNZ’s workload has grown rapidly over the last four years:

  • In 2016-17 we tested 330 samples at 9 events
  • In 2017-18 we tested 445 samples at 7 events
  • In 2018-19 we tested 805 samples at 13 events
  • In 2019-20 we tested 1,368 samples at 22 events

In 2019-20, 195 of our 1368 samples were tested ‘back of house’. These samples were found or confiscated by event security and we tested them so that we could publish an alert if dangerous substances were found. The people who had possessed these samples before they were confiscated were not present during testing and these samples are therefore excluded from some of our analysis as we did not have information on what the substance was thought to be.

The remaining 1173 samples were brought to us by event participants for our ‘front of house’ service.

What drugs did people think they had?

As in previous years, most of the samples brought to us were thought to be MDMA. The next most common presumed substance was LSD, followed by ketamine.

Note that some substances used at events are not commonly brought in for testing, including cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, alcohol, and GHB/GBL.

Image, chart readout of the drug types people thought they had grouped by drug family
The types of substances people thought they had. CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

How often were substances what people thought they were?

This year, 86% of the substances tested consistently with what clients thought they were. This is a similar result to last year and an increase on previous years.

8% of samples gave results that were not consistent with what clients thought they had.

4% gave results that were partially consistent. These samples usually 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.

Testing was inconclusive for the remaining 2% of samples.

What did people actually have?

What we found in our ‘front of house’ testing

The most common substance was MDMA, followed by indoles (usually LSD) and dissociatives (usually ketamine).

We found a number of higher risk substances, as follows.

  • Cathinones (2% of substances) were of particular concern, especially:
    • n-ethylpentylone, which has been associated with deaths overseas and mass hospitalisations in New Zealand
    • eutylone, which is a new substance with unknown risks.
  • Mixtures of psychoactive substances (2%) were of concern because some substances interact to increase the risk of harm, and because some of the mixtures contained dangerous substances. Our main concerns were:
    • Mixtures of MDMA and other substances, which can almost never be detected with reagent testing as the MDMA reaction is so strong that it masks the other reactions.
    • The presence of risky substances in the mixtures, such as cathinones.
    • Mixtures of stimulants (such as MDMA, cocaine, caffeine and cathinones), which increase the risk of heart problems and psychosis.
    • The greater unpredictability of mixtures in general.
  • We tested one sample that contained the dangerous synthetic cannabinoid, 5F-MDMB_PINACA.
Image, chart of what people actually had
What people actually had. CC BY-NC-ND

High dose MDMA pills

Not including confiscated drugs, this season we found 40 pressed pills that we estimated to contain 2 or more doses of MDMA (at least 150mg). These pills made up 5% of the MDMA that we found. We also found two high-dose mixtures: one contained caffeine plus two or more doses of MDMA and the other contained n-ethylpentylone plus two or more doses of MDMA.

This is roughly similar to the 2018-19 season, where 7% of the MDMA that we found contained two or more doses.

What we found in our ‘back of house’ testing of confiscated substances

KnowYourStuffNZ advocates for ‘front-of house’ testing as a better option than testing confiscated drugs as it allows for harm reduction advice to users and it provides a clearer picture of what drugs people are actually taking (as opposed to confiscated substances, which are often peoples’ medications, vitamins, or other non-psychoactive substances).

While we found a similar proportion of MDMA in our ‘back of house’ testing, a considerably higher proportion of these samples were non-psychoactive substances and pharmaceuticals. This is likely to be because security take a precautionary approach given that the content of a pill cannot be determined from its appearance, and thus confiscate both substances that are and are not psychoactive.

Among the confiscated drugs that we tested, we found 16 pressed pills that contained 2 or more doses of MDMA. We included this information in our 2020-21 warnings about certain pills.

Read more about the multidose pills we found in our library

Image, graph of confiscated substances
Confiscated substances. CC BY-NC-ND

How did testing change people’s decisions?

This season, when a substance was not what they thought it was, 52% of clients said that they would not take it.

In the chart below, “n =” denotes the number of samples in each category.

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

Why did people choose to take a substance when testing showed it was not what they thought it was?

When a substance was not what they thought it was, and the client said they would take it, we asked them why. Only 21 responses to this question were received, so our findings are indicative only. We found that:

  • 76% (16) said that they intended to take it because they considered the substance to be desirable. Most of these were cases where testing showed that the substance was MDMA or ketamine.
  • 14% (3) said that they intended to take it because they had consumed it before without problems.
  • One of the remaining 10% (2 people) said that they didn’t consider the substance to be dangerous. The other did not give a clear reason.
Image, chart of reasons people gave to take substance when it was not as presumed
Reasons people gave to still consume the substance when it was not as presumed. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Consistent with the above results, we find that more people are likely to say they will take certain drugs when they aren’t what they thought.

When we collate our results across all years of operation (to give us larger numbers to work with), we find that, among samples that were not what people thought they were:

  • LSD, cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines and dissociatives (mostly ketamine) may be more likely to be taken, with more than half of people saying they will or might take it.
  • Mixtures may also be more likely to be taken, but there is diversity among the mixtures we found and responses varied for different mixtures.
  • People may be less likely to take non-psychoactive substances, pharmaceuticals, and the more dangerous substances such as cathinones and NBOMes.

These results are summarized in the chart below. While the overall numbers are low for some substances, findings are consistent with preliminary results from some statistical analysis that we have underway. Preliminary findings from this analysis suggest that people’s choices about whether to take a substance are influenced both by what drug they have and by whether it’s what they thought it was. We will be publishing the results of this analysis later in 2020.

Image, Chart of intention to take grouped by substance family
Intention to take by substance family. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Consumption method – how did people intend to take substances?

Different consumption methods are associated with different risks, and clients are asked how they intend to take a substance so as to inform the harm reduction advice that they’re given.

  • 77% of clients said that they intended to take their substance orally or sublingually (under the tongue).
  • 18% said that they intended to snort the substance.
  • 5% said that they were unsure about whether they would take it orally or snort it, or said that they would use other methods, such as smoking or vaporising the substance, or inserting it anally.
Image, graph showing intended substance consumption methods
Intended consumption methods. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The following chart shows clients’ intended methods of consumption for the drug families: MD (mostly MDMA), Indoles (mostly LSD), Dissociatives (mostly ketamine), and Cocaine.

There are clear differences between drugs. Most people intending to take MDMA or LSD will take it orally or sublingually. Most people intending to use ketamine or cocaine will snort it.

In the chart below, “n =” denotes the number of samples in each category.

Image, graph showing consumption methods by substance family
Consumption method by family. CC By-NC-ND 4.0

Are we seeing changes over time in the proportion of substances that are what people thought they were?

This season, 86% of substances tested consistently with what clients thought they were. This is similar to last season (2018-19), where 87% of samples tested consistently. In 2016-17 and 2017-18 the proportion was lower, at 68% and 79%, respectively.

Image, graph showing how many substances were as presumed annually from 2016-2020
Percentage of substances that were consistent with their presumed content. CC BY-NC-ND

Change over time in the proportion of MD and Indole samples that were what they were thought to be

MD family (mostly MDMA)

Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, there was an increase in the proportion of presumed MDMA that was actually MDMA: from 63% to 90%. In 2019-20 the proportion remained at 90%. MDMA was more likely than most other substances to be as-presumed.

The decrease in the proportion of MDMA that was ‘partially consistent with presumed’ probably results from improvements to our testing method between 2016/17 and 2017/18.

Indole family (mostly LSD)

For LSD and other indoles, 84% of samples brought to us this year were what clients thought they were. This is a decrease from 92% in 2018-19. This decrease mostly relates to the non-LSD substances in this family. 90% of the presumed LSD tested consistently with LSD, while only 56% of the substances that were presumed to be other indoles tested consistently with what clients thought they were.

Dissociative family (mostly ketamine)

We have seen an increase in the proportion of dissociatives that test consistently with what clients thought they were. However, this result should be viewed with caution as the number of dissociatives tested in earlier years was low. In 2019-20, 91% of the presumed dissociatives tested consistently with what they clients thought they were.

Image, change in consistency with presumed substance over time by drug family
Change in consistency with presumed substance over time by drug family. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Are we seeing changes over time in the substances that people have?

Over the three years to 2018-19, we saw an increase in the proportion of MDMA up to two thirds of our samples, and the proportion of MDMA remains at around two thirds in 2019-20.

Dissociatives (mostly ketamine) have also increased steadily over the last four years and they are now our third most common type of substance, only slightly less prevalent than indoles.

We have seen a decrease in the proportion of LSD and cathinones. Taking into account that we found 4 mixtures of MDMA and a cathinone this year, the total proportion of samples containing cathinones (2%) is still a decrease on previous years. This is a positive development, given the risks associated with cathinones.

Image, line graph showing changes in substances over time grouping by drug family
Changes in substances over time grouping by family. CC BY-NC-ND

Change over time in whether people say they will take a substance when it’s not what they thought

While there was an apparent trend, in our first three years of operation, towards more people saying that they would not take a substance when it was not what they thought it was, this trend has not continued into 2019-20.
As stated last year, factors underlying the differences between years may include:

  • Random fluctuation in the results, especially given the small numbers of substances that were not what clients thought they were.
  • Changes in the extent to which the substances that are not what clients thought they were are desirable or dangerous.
  • Changes in peoples’ willingness to discard substances that are not what they thought. For example, if MDMA is more available, people may be more willing to discard other substances when they know they can get MDMA instead.
  • Changes in the effectiveness of KnowYourStuffNZ’s harm reduction messages.
Image, graph showing amount of people changing their minds about consuming their substances when they were not as presumed
People that decide not to take their substance when it is not what they thought it was. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Further information

You can explore the results further in:

This report was compiled by Andrea Knox and Katie Double.


KnowYourStuffNZ is not-for-profit social enterprise run entirely by volunteers. We are committed to providing evidence-based harm reduction services. If you love what we do, please consider making a donation: https://knowyourstuff.nz/donate