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Without proper education, people are far more at risk of serious drug harm (Image: UIG via Getty Images).
Without proper education, people are far more at risk of serious drug harm (Image: UIG via Getty Images).

PoliticsDecember 1, 2020

Legal pill testing at summer festivals is only the first step

Without proper education, people are far more at risk of serious drug harm (Image: UIG via Getty Images).
Without proper education, people are far more at risk of serious drug harm (Image: UIG via Getty Images).

Pill testing at New Zealand’s festivals will be legal this summer as the Labour government prepares to rush legislation through parliament. And, as Justin Giovannetti writes, the new law could signal more significant changes next year for the country’s drugs.

Most of parliament is supporting Labour’s move to make pill testing legal, taking it out of a legal grey area. The legislation was a campaign promise from Jacinda Ardern and is intended as a short-term fix that makes it legal for someone to handle illegal drugs for a few minutes in a festival tent for the sole purpose of testing them. The drugs themselves remain illegal.

“It’s a matter of safety for young people,” health minister Andrew Little told reporters today. “We know that the festival season is upon us, we know that it just happens. People consume recreational drugs, they consume stuff that they don’t know the authenticity of. A safety measure is to have testing services available.”

The government will now look at expanding testing beyond festivals, potentially allowing New Zealanders across the country to test their drugs at community clinics. Consultations on expanding the festival law is expected to start in the new year.

The Labour caucus had sought a festival testing law before the election but was blocked by coalition partner New Zealand First. With a majority in the house, pill testing is one of the first significant pieces of legislation that the new Ardern government has pushed through where it was previously stymied.

Drug testing has existed in a legal unknown for years. To ensure volunteers didn’t go to jail, groups have so far required festival-goers to learn how to load their own drugs into a spectrometer for testing. It’s been a slow and cumbersome process. The testing sites themselves have also been low-key, their existence largely spread through word of mouth. The law will allow trained volunteers to handle the testing and advertise their existence, making the process more efficient.

With parliament sitting only for another two weeks, the bill will be rushed through the house, not allowing much debate. Act and the Greens, rarely political allies, have already indicated they’ll support the law and the harm reduction expected from stopping people from ingesting a pill of MDMA that’s really something else.

“It’s a fact that many people choose to take pills at concerts and festivals, and no one wants to be the loved one of a tragic fatality that could have been avoided,” said Act’s Brooke van Velden.

It was a view endorsed by the Greens. “When parents send their teenagers off to these festivals, they want them to stay safe, no matter what choices, risks or mistakes they may make,” said Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.

In a tweet, National MP Simon Bridges said the main opposition party will oppose the move. “National isn’t supporting the pill testing bill because it sends the wrong message on hard drugs to our young and it gives them a false sense of security. This law may result in more illicit drug use and more harm,” he wrote.

The stepped approach the government is taking, with an urgently approved law now followed by slower but potentially more significant legislation next year, has been applauded by organisations that provide harm reduction.

“It’s what we were hoping for,” said Wendy Allison, the managing director of Know Your Stuff, a volunteer group that tests drugs at festivals.

“We were a little concerned they’d try to rush something through before Christmas and they wouldn’t do it justice. We’re happy they’ve taken this sensible approach. We’ve been fighting this fight for six years and we’re thrilled. I just had a little cry after seeing the reaction on social media. It’s so nice to see,” said Allison.

Over the past few years, they’ve detected pills at festivals containing much higher doses of MDMA than expected, as well as substitutions for other classes of drugs that are riskier and potentially deadly. In one case, they found fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has fuelled an addiction crisis across large parts of North America.

Longer term, Allison said moving testing beyond festivals was a good idea. The audience there is largely young, white and affluent, she said. It’s not the community most harmed by drugs. Street clinics could target communities that are more at risk. “That’s where I see the future being,” she said.

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