When police minister Stuart Nash came out in support of legalising pill-checking, it seemed to bode well for the practice to be legalised.
Those running the tests – volunteers with not-for-profit group Know Your Stuff – operate in a legal grey area, working within-but-around the law for the past five years.
In that time, they’ve tested pills at dozens of festivals to see if they are what people think they are.
Often they’re not; Know Your Stuff’s director Wendy Allison says one year, 80 per cent of the drugs they tested were not what they were supposed to be.
Other years it’s been as low as 15 per cent.
“Drug markets have no quality control… and we believe those numbers can fluctuate wildly from year to year,” says Allison.
Finds include MDMA mixed with cathinones – specifically those known as ‘bath salts’ - and one concerning discovery of synthetic-opioid fentanyl, which has been responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States.
But despite having had a presence at some festivals for years, legal uncertainty makes Know Your Stuff’s work a lot harder.
It can get around the supply issue by having clients handle their own drugs; “If we’re never in possession of them and we’re not supplying them, we’re not breaking the law,” says Allison.
She says what really needs clearing up is the part of the law affecting venues.
“The other issue is Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which makes it a crime to knowingly permit a venue to be used for drug use.
“What this means is that the event organisers, if they acknowledge that they know people are using drugs at their event, this potentially puts them on the wrong side of section 12, because you could interpret it to say they’re knowingly permitting their venue to be used for drug use.”
She says the events that are willing to take on that risk tend to be smaller events, in out of the way places.
“The larger events where we could prevent the most harm by having our presence are too afraid to get us in because of the potential consequences.”
There was hope that this year they would have been able to expand their operations.
Hot on the announcement that pesticide had been found in some pills at Rhythm and Vines last year, Stuart Nash set about looking at ways to make it easier to legally test illegal drugs.
Labour, the Greens and ACT’s David Seymour back the idea but National opposes it – as does, crucially, government coalition partner New Zealand First.
“Taking pills at festivals is a thoroughly bad idea,” says New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
“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 out if pill taking is safe but we at New Zealand First say it’s not safe, don’t do it.”
Nash accepts that New Zealand First’s position on the matter means the laws won’t be changed in time for this summer.
Allison isn’t surprised and has been planning for the coming summer with a business-as-usual approach.
She says she can understand with the ‘don’t do drugs because of the inherent danger’ argument of Peters and Bridges, but disagrees with it.
“I can see those concerns, however there have been drug checking services operating in Europe for 20 years and they are all very monitored. There’s no evidence that’s come out of that monitoring to suggest the presence of checking services at events increases drug use.
“Evidence often doesn’t sway people who are taking a moral stance, and the moral stance here is that drug use is wrong and people who do wrong things should be punished.
“From our perspective, we don’t think death is an appropriate punishment for some kid experimenting at a party.”