1 Oct 2019

NZ First block drug checking: 'Stick to things that are safe'

7:55 pm on 1 October 2019

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters says a proposal to legalise drug checks at music festivals would send the wrong message about drug use, which he believes is a "thoroughly bad idea" and should not be condoned.

Rhythm and Vines

New Years' Eve at Rhythm and Vines (file photo). Photo: Jared Donkin

New Zealand First put the brakes on the Labour and Green-supported plan, which would have allowed pill testing services at events this summer.

"Taking pills at festivals is a thoroughly bad idea," Mr Peters said.

"Now it's been suggested that we should provide all the mechanisms for people to take a whole lot of pills down there to find whether pill taking is safe or not.

"We at New Zealand First say it's not safe, don't do it. If you want to live, then stick to things that are safe," he said.

"I think it's better to tell people that drugs and drug experimentation is an awfully risky and dangerous thing to do."

Drug checking, or pill testing, is a scientific test using an infra-red "spectrometer" machine to determine the make up of a tiny sample of drug provided by the would-be user. It's hooked up to a computer and displays which substances are present in a drug, including those that weren't expected, such as adulterants. That information can be used to inform the user about whether or not to consume it.

Advocates, including the Minister of Police, said that despite decades of 'Just Say No' messaging, the reality is people do use drugs, and this service will save lives.

Minister Stuart Nash started pushing for pill-testing after recreational drugs laced with pesticides were found at a festival last summer. He said the testing would prevent people from unknowlingly ingesting bad batches of recreational drugs.

"I'm still a big fan of drug testing at festivals because it plays into the prevention first approach by police," Mr Nash said.

"But I couldn't get it through coalition partners. Without the numbers it's not going to happen. I can't get it over the line but that doesn't mean I stop efforts in other areas to see if it can make change in some way."

Pill testing is already happening at some festivals in New Zealand, but operates in a legal grey area, which scares some festivals off.

It's illegal for people to allow their property to be used for drug use, so if festival organisers invite a drug checking service they could be seen to be acknowledging that use is happening.

Winston Peters

Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Mr Nash's proposal intended to clear up the grey area and make it legal.

The volunteer organisation that runs these testing services, Know Your Stuff, acknowleged that taking drugs is risky. But people still do it, so why not lower that risk by telling people what's in the drugs they were already planning to take.

Director Wendy Allison said from the 13 events they went to last summer, more than half of people didn't take a drug when it was found to contain substances they didn't expect it to, such as contaminants.

Ms Allison was critical of New Zealand First MP Darroch Ball, who said testing totally absolved young people from taking personal responsibility for their decisions.

"What we do is we give people an opportunity to make better choices and change their behaviour around drugs," Ms Allison said.

"Basically saying that we shouldn't be doing that is saying we shouldn't be trying to save lives, and that is exactly what Darroch Ball has been saying.

"He seems to think it would be better is these people just died, and that is reprehensible in my view."

She said drug checking has been happening in Europe and the US for 20 years, and there's no evidence that the presence of testing services increases usage rates.

The Drug Foundation's Ross Bell said the decades-long approach of telling people not to take drugs clearly had not worked, and not accepting that people take drugs is head-in-the-sand stuff.

The foundation partners with Know Your Stuff at festivals, and said, since their staff haven't been arrested and festivals haven't been shut down, they'll keep operating business as usual at fesivals around the country this summer.

"New Zealand has some of the highest drug use in the world, despite 'just say no' attempts," Mr Bell said.

"We know the black market at the moment is really complicated with new and very dangerous substances being cooked up all the time.

"We live in the real world. Bottom line for us: can we keep people safe? Yes, these services do that, so we'll continue to run them," he said.

The National Party did not support the proposal either and Mr Ball didn't respond to a request for comment.

Police said their advice will always be that the easiest way to prevent drug harm is to not take drugs.

"Police are aware of these services, but even when the drug is what it seems, the user can come to considerable harm.

"It is important to remember that illicit drugs are generally manufactured and/or imported by people who put profit above all else and do not consider the health and wellbeing of users.

"The possession and use of illicit drugs is illegal and prosecution remains an option in order to prevent harm and keep people safe," a spokesperson said.

Mr Nash said the police understand the value of drug testing, but can't be part of it.

"My first piece of advice is don't take drugs, my second piece of advice is be safe," he said.