Drug checking at music festivals

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the legalisation of drug testing at festivals. Here’s what you need to know…

In early December 2020, the government passed legislation that makes drug testing at festivals legal for the first time. This is great news for our partner KnowYourStuffNZ who have been providing this service for the last 6 years in a legal grey space.

In case you don’t know, KnowYourStuffNZ is a community organisation of amazing volunteers operating in collaboration with another of our key partners, the New Zealand Drug Foundation. KnowYourStuffNZ provides drug related harm reduction services at events around New Zealand, including drug checking. This service is entirely free of charge and is all about making sure people stay safer.

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What’s changing now that drug checking is legal?

The new legislation allows drug checking to be provided by appointed service providers at festivals, events, and other locations. It makes it legal for someone to handle illegal drugs for a few minutes for the sole purpose of testing them. The drugs themselves remain illegal.

In the past, it was a legal risk for festival organisers to have a drug checking service at their event. The law meant that organisers basically had to turn a blind eye to drug use at events, because allowing for drug testing would be implying that the event was allowing for drug use. If they did have a drug testing service, like KnowYourStuffNZ, at their event, it wasn’t publicly advertised – mostly people knew it was happening through word of mouth at events.

Volunteers providing the drug testing also couldn’t handle substances themselves, as this would mean being in possession of illicit substances. That means advising festival-goers on how to load their own drugs into a spectrometer for testing – as you can imagine, this really slowed things down.

The new law change means that event organisers can be more honest about harm reduction and caring for the welfare of festival-goers. For KnowYourStuffNZ, that means from this summer onwards they can be more open about their service at festivals, and have signage that actually explains what they do. Volunteers will also now be able to handle the test substances which should speed up the service and reduce queues.

Here’s what KnowYourStuffNZ have to say about it:

In the longer term, we see this change as being part of a more open and honest approach to drugs. We look forward to drug checking being available to all who can benefit from it. That goes beyond festivals where, let’s face it, we’re serving a mostly well-off, young, and white crowd. Our overall goal is to be part of reducing harm for everyone and anyone who uses drugs.

Is drug checking only allowed at festivals?

The legislation that’s passed is a short-term fix and was pushed through to make sure it was in place for this summer. The government will now look at expanding testing beyond festivals – potentially allowing for testing at community clinics. Consultations on expanding this festival law will likely start in the new year.

Why is drug checking so important?

Drug checking is harm reduction. It gives people who have a drug they intend to take more objective information about it. This lets people use information to reconsider how or even if they will take the substance they have.

There’s no way to know if a substance is actually what you think it is, unless you get it tested. For example, it’s common for MDMA to actually be another drug, or mixed with different substances like synthetic cathinones, known as ‘bath salts’. These other drugs may be different in strength, have different effects, and may take longer to have an effect which could lead to re-dosing and an increased chance of overdose.

The strength of MDMA can also vary quite a bit, and over the past few festival seasons there have been instances of high dose MDMA pills being sold in New Zealand. KnowYourStuffNZ has a helpful resource to help with identifying these.

While not using drugs at a festival is the safest option, there are a few things like testing that you can do to help lower the risk:

  • Avoid re-dosing as this increases the change of overdose.
  • Avoid mixing drugs, including with alcohol, as this can increase harmful side effects.
  • Make sure you have a plan in case of emergency.
  • Take regular breaks when dancing.

If you think a substance you or a friend took is actually something else:

  • Don’t take anymore.
  • Don’t take other drugs or drink alcohol.
  • Seek medical advice.

When you are safe, please tell us about your experience. This will help keep others safe.

You can find out more about drug checking through the NZ Drug Foundation.

If you have any concerns about your own drinking or drug taking, get in touch with the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You’ll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential. You can also chat to the team through their website.