22 Feb 2019

Festival organisers wary of inviting drug-testing group

8:51 pm on 22 February 2019

A rocketing demand for party pill-testing has a not-for-profit organisation's hands full.

Ecstasy tablets on black background

Photo: 123rf

KnowYourStuffNZ is having the busiest season but some event organisers are still wary of the service, which operates in a legal grey area.

Festivalgoers heading to Christchurch's Electric Avenue this weekend will be greeted by a large police presence and extra security after 13 people were hospitalised after using contaminated party pills at last year's event.

The victims, included one as young as 15, had taken the lethal stimulant n-ethylpentylone, which was masquerading as the party drug MDMA.

One festivalgoer said the frightening experience pushed him to write to the Electric Avenue organisers, urging them to consider introducing pill testing.

"I would describe it as a feeling of extreme anxiety and a lot of nervousness and suspicion. It felt like a bad dream that didn't end for a couple of days. My heart was racing and I wasn't able to sleep for two nights straight."

The fake MDMA - which has been linked to deaths overseas - left other people unable to sleep for 72 hours.

Electric Avenue spokesman Callam Mitchell declined to confirm to RNZ whether the festival would be offering drug testing.

He said there would be a greater police presence than previous years and security guards conducting thorough searching, which for the first time would include bag checks, jackets and clothing pockets for illicit substances.

Warnings about the fake MDMA in circulation were released by KnowYourStuffNZ director Wendy Allison, but she warned the pocket-checking approach could be counterproductive.

"That sounds like a recipe for people gobbing their whole stash in one go and ending up in hospital."

KnowYourStuff volunteers work in a legally-ambiguous zone, said Ms Allison.

For KnowYourStuff NZ to operate within the law, volunteers never handle the substances, and those using their services have to prepare the sample for testing themselves - their only job is to test the sample in front of them, interpret results and provide the harm reduction information.

Event organisers are reluctant to invite testers to events in case they are accused of encouraging drug use.

It is a crime for event organisers to knowingly permit any premises to be used for crimes against the Misuse of Drugs Act. Therefore, inviting KnowYourStuffNZ can make them legally liable for allowing drugs to be taken at their event.

However, organisation is on track this summer to double the number of tests they completed last year.

Ms Allison attributed the growth to high-level political support, including from Police Minister Stuart Nash, which gave event organisers more confidence to bring in help.

"An increasing number of politicians, and particularly politicians who are currently in government, [are] coming out publicly in support of drug checking.

"[It] reassures them they are unlikely to experience some of the negative consequences they have feared."

Leading Auckland University addiction researcher Benedikt Fischer said checking people's pockets was a band-aid approach to drug control.

"Many users will find ways to be more smarter, creative and about the clandestine ways of either taking these drugs beforehand or bringing them in, in some other way or fashion which is likely more hazardous than what they would ordinarily do".

Dr Fischer said that while pill checking reduced harm, it could create a false sense of security as those who took illicit drugs could still suffer unpredictable physical effects.

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