In November 2021, new legislation was introduced to make drug testing legal and free of charge. Recently released data from 2022 shows why that’s so important.
What is drug checking, and who does it?
“Drug checking is a free and legal process that helps people find out what’s really in their drugs, so they can make informed decisions about if, when and how they take those drugs,” explains a New Zealand Drug Foundation report. The foundation works with KnowYourStuffNZ and the NZ Needle Exchange to conduct ordinary testing, with the ESR lab handling advanced testing. Importantly, every test includes a complimentary harm reduction session. Those who participate in drug checking remain completely anonymous, as it is illegal for any of the providers to record any identifying information about participants.
Last year, the Drug Foundation ran 73 drug check clinics across Auckland, Carterton, Christchurch, Gisborne, Lower Hutt, Masterton, New Plymouth, Wainuiomata and Wellington – testing 1,720 samples. Clinics are run in conjunction with festivals, student unions/associations and their parent universities, regional needle exchanges, retailers, non-profits, STI advocates, city missions, the Aotearoa Sex Workers’ Collective and Auckland Pride.
Why is drug testing important?
“The most dangerous drug is the drug that you don’t know about”, says the Drug Foundation’s Emily Hughes. The purpose of testing is not to reprimand users or confiscate drugs. “Ultimately, for us, testing comes down to the power of knowledge and harm reduction. For many people, this is the first time they’ve had an open and honest conversation about their drug use with a health professional,” says Hughes.
Since Covid-19 border restrictions were eased, new drugs have flooded the local market. Local scientists don’t know much about these new drugs yet, but “drug checking allows us to identify what the new substances are so we can engage in harm reduction”, says Hughes. The Drug Foundation recently released its 2022 annual report on what was found in those tests.
What’s the gist of it?
Key findings included that only 57% of drugs were what people expected – 21% were the presumed drug mixed with another drug, and 12% of samples were something else entirely.
What drugs did people think they had, and what unexpected substances were present?
Although some of the people who turned up to the 73 Drug Foundation clinics were unsure what they possessed, most thought they had one of the following:
The majority (59%) of samples were presumed to be MDMA. Other common presumed substances included amphetamines (5%), methamphetamine (4%), cocaine (5%), ketamine (4%), LSD (4%) and cannabis (4%). Plenty of unexpected substances were discovered after testing, however.
Some people who thought they had pure psychoactive drugs also got some baking goods, crushed-up boner pills and over-the-counter painkillers mixed in. “In many cases, samples were mixtures of two or more substances,” the report noted.
What ‘fillers’ were present?
Fillers/binders are non-psychoactive substances used to bulk out drugs. The Drug Foundation encourages people to understand what binders are present in drugs, “especially if they’re planning to inject or snort it, as some fillers can be harmful to take in these ways”. A wide variety of binders were identified, including caffeine, calcium, cornstarch, creatine, garlic powder, lactose, sugar and epsom salts.
What unexpected substances were of particular concern?
25B-NBOH and other NBOMes were discovered at Rhythm & Vines, masquerading as LSD. These substances have caused multiple deaths overseas.
Isopropylbenzylamine in meth, which often produces noticeably uncomfortable effects such as headaches.
New synthetic cathinones (bath salts) like cyputylone and d-tertylone are being sold as MDMA. The Drug Foundation report said, “synthetic cathinones can have a much lower dosage rate than MDMA, so if someone takes a substance thinking it’s MDMA when it’s a cathinone, they could be at risk of overdose, or an unexpected and unpleasant time”.
Novel (new) benzodiazepines. “With novel benzos, we often don’t have info about dosing, and these may be active in incredibly tiny doses – meaning the risk of overdose is high,” noted the report.
Novel opioids are highly potent; even the equivalent of a few grains of salt can kill.
What’s really in our drugs?
The Drug Foundation’s research looked into the real makeup of some popular drugs.
Cocaine: Seventy-one percent of cocaine samples were either pure or mixed with fillers. Ten percent included another drug, but in 19% of samples, no cocaine was present at all. The drugs sold as cocaine included MDMA, bath salts, ketamine and methamphetamine.
Ketamine: Of the popular drugs, testing found that drugs presumed to be ketamine were largely accurate – 93% was ketamine or was mixed with binders. Four percent of samples were ketamine mixed with another drug, and 3% contained no ketamine. Samples that weren’t ketamine were instead substances like methamphetamine.
LSD: Seventy-eight percent of LSD samples were identified as part of the wider psychedelic group – known as indoles – which includes LSD, DMT and magic mushrooms. Eight percent of samples were confirmed to contain non-indole substances, such as ketamine or the particularly hazardous drugs 25B-NBOH and NBOMe.
MDMA: Eighty-two percent of what was presumed to be MDMA was either pure MDMA or mixed with fillers. Twelve percent of samples contained zero MDMA; of that, 37% were bath salts, one of the particularly hazardous substances identified by the Drug Foundation. The remaining samples were MDMA mixed with substances like caffeine and paracetamol. Alongside bath salts, substances sold as MDMA included caffeine, ketamine and cocaine.
Methamphetamine: One in five samples sold as meth contained no meth at all, but three quarters of all samples were either meth or were mixed with binders. Three percent contained meth combined with another drug. Some substances that were masquerading as meth included cough medicine and isopropylbenzylamine, the meth-like drug cited by the Drug Foundation as very dangerous.
How can you stay safe if you don’t have access to drug-testing schemes?
The Drug Foundation’s Emily Hughes notes that although there are plans to expand drug checking, it currently can’t cover every corner of the motu, so she has some tips for people for whom testing initiatives aren’t accessible. Firstly, “if you can test your own drugs, do it!” Testing kits can be purchased online, for example, through Cosmic or the NZ Needle Exchange. Secondly, follow drug-checking schemes on social media and check their websites for up-to-date information on the latest dangerous drug trends. Thirdly, “start with a low dose to test it out – it may seem simple, but it is really important.”
Information about harm reduction is always available. If you or someone you know needs help, you can find useful information on the following websites: Alcohol and Drug Helpline, Family Drug Support Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Government, New Zealand Police and The Level.
The Alcohol and Drug Helpline can be reached at 0800 787 797 (phone call) and 8681 (text), or if you would like to attend a drug-checking clinic see the calendar here.