17 Jul 2018

Calls for national wastewater testing for illicit drugs

11:19 am on 17 July 2018

Councils are calling for a national regime to test wastewater for illicit drugs, to better understand who's taking what and where.

no caption

Photo: 123RF

Tasman District Council pitched the policy to the Local Government New Zealand conference in Christchurch on Sunday, calling for standardised tests to be implemented nationally.

The remit passed with an 85 percent majority and councils will now lobby central government for support.

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne became interested in wastewater testing for drugs while investigating a recent increase in serious road crashes in the region.

He met the police, the Transport Agency and his local MP to find out whether drugs are often a factor in the crashes, but was told definitive data were not available.

"There was not the ability to get factual information about that because often the accidents might be going to court and so I couldn't get an actual comment or actual statistics."

Mr Kempthorne found out about a trial commissioned by police to test wastewater in Christchurch, Whangarei and in Rosedale on Auckland's North Shore.

That trial provided a drug use profile in each of the areas, showing methamphetamine was the most prevalent illicit substance in Whangarei, ecstasy in Christchurch and cocaine in Rosedale.

Wastewater testing could be the most accurate means available to see what drugs were being used where and in what quantities, he said.

That information could be invaluable to police or public health authorities making decisions about treatment.

"So, this is not about turning into a police state but it's just saying 'okay we know that this is a particular drug that we've got being consumed. These are the activities or the behaviours we may see as a result, what can we do to make sure that the problems are as small as possible?'"

Mr Kempthorne said councils around the country appear supportive of a national testing regime, like the ones in Christchurch, Whangarei and Rosedale.

ESR scientist Andrew Chappell has been working on this trial programme with police for the past 20 months and was excited about its potential.

He said the data obtained would allow for cross-country comparisons providing a more accurate reflection of the nation's drug habits.

"It's a fairly exciting idea to go nationally because at the moment we are doing three sites but we can't really extrapolate from those sites - so we can't say this is the national picture - we have to just isolate it to the areas we are currently testing."

Police said that wastewater testing provided an accurate measure of illegal drug consumption that was cost effective, timely and non-intrusive.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs