19 Feb 2019

Otago uni students to be able to test illegal drugs

From Checkpoint, 5:18 pm on 19 February 2019

Otago University students will be able to get their illegal drugs tested during Orientation week in a bid to reduce the harm the drugs can cause.

Checkpoint's Lisa Owen asked the students' association's chief executive Debbie Downs why she thought there was a need for the service.

From tomorrow until Saturday, the students association is conducting the testing at its Albany Street car park.

Otago University Students' Association said it did not consult the university or police but took legal advice before going ahead. 

It did, however, notify both the university and police of their intent for testing via a press release.

The association's chief executive, Debbie Downs, told Checkpoint the association was taking a risk by hosting the drug testing, but believed it was  important to protect student health.

"We're really aware that there's some risk for an organisation to go ahead with this and we think the student association and organisation who can be quite bold. 

"This is actually our place in the world to provide support systems, the university's place is, you know, obviously it provides welfare and support as well but it's academia, so this is something we felt very strongly that we just needed to go out and do ourselves rather than bring anyone along with us."

She said they would be clear to those who used the service around the legal ramifications of using the drugs on the site.

"We'll be very clear with the clients... that come to do their testing, that they're not allowed to ingest anything on the premises, so hopefully that gets around that part of the law."

She said she hoped that police would use their discretion before taking any legal action against individuals who use the service.

"I can't speak for police but I hope they see that this is a public good. There is some discretion that police have over whether they choose to charge someone over possession."

She said she considered it to be a "fairly minor risk", but there were bigger risks in the uncertainties around the testing, such as how many people would use the service and how much drugs were in the area.

The testing will take place in the car park because it belongs to the association, Ms Downs said, as opposed to somewhere else on the campus which would require consent.

OUSA was well known for its safety initiatives and she to make this bold move despite being a little nervous, she said.

"This is really bold. This will be the first time in New Zealand that this type of drug checking has been available publicly or in a publicly accessible place. Before this it's only been done at ticketed festivals. 

"I know I have great support from within the association and certainly the president, and the student executive really support this.

"From a harm prevention stand point it fits in with everything else we do. I think it's really important, sometimes someone has to be brave and bold and get these things kickstarted."

In a statement, police said there would be no guarantees that they would steer clear of the testing service. 

"The easiest way to prevent yourself from harm associated with drug use is to not take them in the first place."

Possession and use of illicit drugs is illegal and police said prosecution remained an option to prevent harm and keep people safe. 

They also said that the Policing Act allowed them to apply discretion in dealing with drug matters.

However, police said they would continue to focus their efforts on organised criminal groups who manufacture and distribute harmful drugs. 

In a statement, Otago University reiterated the testing was not taking place on university grounds and said it did not endorse the use of illegal drugs or the drug testing initiative. 

However, the university stated that it had no plans to interfere.