Pingers, parties and politics: How festival drug testers are trying to save lives

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Pingers, parties and politics: How festival drug testers are trying to save lives

7 January 2020

By Josephine Franks

When you're stuck at the bottom of the world, you take what you can get. For Claire*, that's cocaine and ketamine, occasionally MDMA. Or at least that's what she hopes she's getting. She knows she's not, not all the time. There's a difference from bag to bag, dealer to dealer, "especially with things like 'cocaine', which is probably just methamphetamine and washing powder". Since returning from Berlin, where quality drugs were cheap and plentiful, the 34-year-old Aucklander doesn't take drugs as often; they're "s…" here. But that doesn't stop a lot of Kiwis. It's that "she'll be right" attitude, Claire says.

It's a mentality Wendy Allison knows too well. The director of drug testing service KnowYourStuffNZ, her last five summers have been spent on the festival circuit, picking out pesticides and bath salts before they slip past the lips and nostrils of unsuspecting festival-goers. Last year they tested 805 samples across 13 events – more than double the previous year.

She's seen some worrying things: cathinones, or bath salts, are the big one. If someone thinks they've got MDMA and they haven't, bath salts are the likely imposter – and while some of the effects are similar, users may also experience anxiety attacks, heart arrhythmia and fits. Overdosing is more likely because people don't get the high they're expecting, so they go back for more. Deaths overseas and hospitalisations in New Zealand have cathinones to blame.

Super-strength MDMA is another concern. Four years ago, the pills started showing up in Europe and the UK, linked to hospitalisations and deaths; two summers later they were here. Allison is expecting to see more of the pills this season, with some containing up to four times the average dose of MDMA.

But it's the Kiwi attitude to drugs that worries her most. Drugs in New Zealand have historically been of low and fluctuating quality. Without any way of finding out what's in them, Kiwis have been "trained to take things without knowing what they are", she said. "There's a resigned attitude that in order to have a good time, you've got to go through this risk of having a not-so-good time – and as long as you don't die, that's fine."

But give people information and they will use it: 87 per cent of clients surveyed by KnowYourStuff last summer said their behaviour had changed as a result of using the service. Sixty-two per cent of people whose drugs weren't what they thought said they wouldn't take them.

KnowYourStuff does more than test people's drugs and send them on their way. For starters, they don't give any substances back after testing; they are destroyed in the process. The first thing they tell people is that taking any drugs is risky. The next is what the specific risks are, and what users can do to reduce them, discussing dosages, symptoms, what could go wrong, what not to mix.

Testing one person's drugs might prevent one death, but changing how people approach drug use will have the biggest effect on harm, Allison said. The shift from "she'll be right" is starting, with people more aware of risks and less willing to accept dodgy drugs as normal.

It's not just that there's no legal imperative to offer harm reduction facilities for drug users – it's difficult, bordering on illegal. Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act makes it a crime to knowingly permit a venue to be used for drug use, which means festival testing operates in a legal grey area.

No-one has been charged for having it on-site, but the threat looms large. It's hard to get past councils, insurers, police and stakeholders, even when the promoters themselves are keen. And they are: they don't want a death on their hands.

Mitch Lowe has had some success getting drug-testing across the line, but only at smaller events such as Raglan and Timaru Soundsplash. At the major festivals he puts on – Bay Dreams, One Love – it's been a "flat no". He can't see the sense in that - the more people, the greater the risk, the more potential there is for reducing harm.

"It's frustrating to have something that's right there, that has evidence that shows it's something that reduces risk, and for us to not be able to put that into effect," Simon Wallace says. He's one of the people behind Friendly Potential, an Auckland club night that has spawned two festivals. Organisers weren't dealing with situations where people might take drugs, he said – they did.

With the number of people taking drugs on the rise, we're starting to see some movement on festival testing. Earlier this month, the Government announced a $59,000 study that will take place this summer, looking at the effectiveness of drug testing as a harm reduction tool.

A Victoria University of Wellington criminology team will be going to events, conducting interviews and sifting through data provided by KnowYourStuff. The evidence they come back with will be used to shape any potential next steps by the Government.

At the moment, National opposes drug testing. NZ First only recently came around to it after a heated debate from its youth wing at its annual conference. Allison hopes the evidence to come out of this summer will be enough to secure a law change. But right now they're going headfirst into festival season with Section 12 as it is, and that worries her.

"If we are unable to attend a particular event because of the Government's lack of action on this and somebody dies at that event, I will be blaming the Government for that," she said.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to prompt action, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick said, pointing to the pastoral care laws passed in the wake of the death of University of Canterbury student Mason Pendrous, who lay dead in his room for weeks. She has been leading the charge for drug law reform, and said she welcomed this summer's research project as a way of strengthening the case for legal drug checking.

When politicians consider whether to change the law, Allison said they would be dealing with one fundamental question: "Should we or should we not try to save the lives of people who have broken the law?"

"For us the bad thing is that they die – not that they take drugs."