12 Dec 2016

From Zero - Partying Hard

From FROM ZERO, 10:17 pm on 12 December 2016

Episode six of Russell Brown's drug podcast, From Zero, looks at why it's so hard to do the right thing, when the right thing is keeping young people alive.

An image of a range of recreational pills.

Examples of recreational pills. Photo: Unharm.org

It seems likely that at this summer's music festivals, on both sides of the Tasman, there will be drug-checking to let people know what they're taking and whether it's dangerous. Senior politicians, doctors and police officers have told us it's a good idea.

It's also illegal.

People have taken drugs at music festivals for as long as there have been music festivals. But in the last 15 years, things have changed. As policing has made the principal recreational drugs more difficult to manufacture, hundreds of new drugs have emerged. All of them are less well understood than the old drugs – some of them are markedly more dangerous.

An image of a drug-checking tent at a music festival.

A drug-checking tent at a music festival. Photo: Unharm.org

Wellingtonian Wendy Allison has been quietly carrying out drug-checking for the past eight years, initially for friends. A night in 2014 when people around her lapsed into "eight to 10 hour psychotic breaks" after taking what they believed to be MDMA (Ecstasy) was a turning point.

She began offering the service in a more organised way and recording her results – and they were alarming. Fewer than 20 per cent of the pills or powders tested were what the owner believed they'd bought. But half of the people who were told they didn't have what they thought chose not to take the drugs at all.

"I don't know of any other intervention that actually does that."

"In terms of reducing potential harm, that's immediately half of the people taken out of harm's way."

David Caldicott, Emergency Consultant at the Calvary Hospital in Canberra, has seen similar results in the years he has been coordinating drug-checking at events and nightclubs in Australia. But he faces a challenge this summer, as the New South Wales government threatens to prosecute doctors who take part in a trial of drug-checking at larger festivals.

An image of drug-checking reagents.

Drug-checking reagents. Photo: Dancesafe.org.

Emergency medicine specialists are on the frontline of the problem. Dr Paul Quigley of the Wellington Hospital emergency department explains to us the chaos he's seeing with drugs like 25i-NBOMe, which has largely supplanted the safer-but-harder-to-manufacture LSD in New Zealand.

Drug-checking has been commonplace for years in a number of European countries. Local advocates believe there's an urgency around drug-checking here now, as the drug market becomes even more polluted with unknown substances. And it will happen on a wider scale this summer. The question remains: how do the authorities respond?

This story was produced by Russell Brown. The Executive Producers were Justin Gregory and Tim Watkin.

You can subscribe or listen to every FROM ZERO episode at rnz.co.nz/series and on ITunes and Spotify.

If you have feedback on this series or stories you want to share, you can email us at justin.gregory@radionz.co.nz.

Listen to other episodes of From Zero

From Zero: Episode One 

From Zero: Episode Two

From Zero: Episode Three

From Zero: Episode Four

From Zero:Episode Five