Law change makes drug testing at festivals easier, funding and policing issues remain

10:51 pm on 7 December 2021

There's a cognitive dissonance, Wendy Allison says, about drug checking at music festivals.

Some of the pills in circulation this summer.

KnowYourStuffNZ expects eutylone, or bath salts, to a prevalent danger again this summer. Photo: KnowYourStuffNZ

Ticketholders sneak in substances - in underwear, shoes, hats and taped to body parts - to get them past police and security.

If successful, they can then make their way to testers like Allison at KnowYourStuffNZ, to see whether they've been sold a dangerous substitute or not.

"It does set up an awkward situation in people's minds," she says.

"Especially when we're situated near to the gates where people are being searched. And then we're going 'no, bring us your drugs and we'll test them'."

She hopes those situations will be "less uncomfortable" after temporary law legalising drug checking was made permanent last month - a world-leading reform that comes into force today.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon - describing his colleague Mark Mitchell as "quite cool" and "down with the kids" - said it was a "bad bill".

But what does the Parliamentary hoity-toity of the fresh Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2021 really mean for recreational drug users?

University of Canterbury Students' Association president Kim Fowler says "it really helps people to feel reassured that using it [drug checking] is the right thing to do".

"If they hesitate, they might not find out that they've got dangerous cathinones in MDMA, for example."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says the legalisation is "lifesaving".

"But it also still is built into a fundamentally unfit law, that law is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975."

And aside from legislative change, the hard mahi is largely left to community services like KnowYourStuffNZ, which Swarbrick says are "running off the smell of an oily rag".

Six weeks ago the government allocated $800,000 to fund licensed drug-checking services to operate at music festivals and train staff - just a couple of months out from the events.

But that money cannot be used to pay for testing spectrometers that cost about $60,000 each.

KnowYourStuffNZ only has five to use this summer - some owned, some borrowed - but ideally to cover demand the service would have more than double that.

RNZ made an Official Information Act request about possible funding for these spectrometers, but it was declined by the Ministry of Health "to maintain the constitutional conventions that protect the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials".

In other words, New Zealanders aren't allowed to know why spectrometers aren't publicly funded.

KnowYourStuffNZ did 2744 tests last summer across 10 festivals, 9 public clinics and 4 student events.

At some festivals, more than 50 percent of what was meant to be MDMA tested as eutylone (often referred to as 'bath salts') and overall only 11 percent of those told they had eutylone, said they would still take it.

KnowYourStuffNZ expects eutylone to be prevalent again this summer.

Although that's bad news for nervous parents like Hamilton mum Sally Evans, she's a strong supporter of legalising and funding drug-checking services.

"It's the logical thing, even though it's sometimes not society's accepted way."

No caption

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says the new legislation is life-saving. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Last summer she got a call from her teenager, saying their friends appeared to be having seizures after taking what they thought was MDMA.

One of them had to be resuscitated in the emergency department.

"It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had to have, with another set of parents. We both stood there and watched their child being worked on."

She hopes the availability of drug-checking services will make it easier for parents to talk to their children about experimenting with drugs, and safety measures.

"It would be more tragic and life-changing to find out your child has passed away."

Criminologist Dr Fiona Hutton has heavily researched the behavioural impacts of drug-checking services in Aotearoa.

"It [research] tells us, overwhelmingly, that drug-checking services reduce drug-related harms, and they stop people from being hospitalised," she says.

"They pick up particular batches of substances or pills that could be very harmful, so alerts can be put out through early warning system around particular substances.

"The evidence is also very clear that drug-checking services do not increase drug use."

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua wrote to Parliament, backing the law change.

Antony Thompson

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua operations officer Antony Thompson. Photo: Supplied

But the Rūnanga's operations officer Antony Thompson and his colleagues are wary of the conflicting interests of police and testing services, and the potential for racial targeting as Māori and Pacific people approach and leave testing stations.

"We want to make sure that service or kaupapa isn't abused, used as a pinpoint to isolate."

Police declined to be interviewed by RNZ.

Splore has brought substance-checking services onsite for the last six years - well before it was legalised.

But festival director John Minty says local police have always seen it as "a health issue".

"We obviously have a no drugs policy. So we search people when they come in, if we find drugs, obviously, we confiscate them. And if we find people with large quantities, the police are brought in and they are arrested, potentially, for dealing."

But he says once ticketholders are inside the gates "police are very much hands off".

"If people have managed to get drugs in and they go to the drug-checking service, the police are very on board with that."

While festival testing motivated the law changes, Chloe Swarbrick says it would be "utterly stupid and naive to pretend that it [recreational drug use] isn't also happening at bars and clubs and parties every other weekend across Aotearoa New Zealand".

So the new law allows checking services to operate anywhere, as long as they have permission, and the property isn't residential.

Wendy Allison says this will "improve the equity of access dramatically".

But with limited resources and tech, she says there will still be many licensed testers cannot reach.

"We're recommending that people make sure they get their gear tested if they can possibly access a service, and if they can't access the service, then reagent testing is better than nothing."


  • Covid blamed for lethal substitutes to MDMA
  • Know Your Stuff issues warnings to partygoers over drugs
  • Festival testing gets the green light
  • The drug testing dilemma - how we are getting around it
  • Drug-testing body calls for $1m funding as MDMA use on increase