What you need to know about festival drug testing this summer

Drug testing organisation Know Your Stuff is out in full force this summer.
The summer festival season is almost here, and along with our favourite artists, friends and fun in the sun, it’s also when recreational use of drugs spikes. We talk to drug testing experts Know Your Stuff NZ on what is appearing in this year’s substances, how drug testing works and whether it’s ever really safe to use drugs.

Warning: This article contains information on recreational drug usage.

According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, despite the fact that it’s illegal, 49 per cent of the adult population has used recreational drugs at some point in their lives and many counted in that statistic have likely used drugs at a music festival.

Based on a report from the National Drug Intelligence Bureau, in the first quarter of both 2020 and 2021 (January-March) wastewater testing found a spike in MDMA substances compared to other quarters of those years. It comes after a New Zealand based study published by the National Library of Medicine found the most common drug found at Kiwi festivals was MDMA (ecstasy/molly), with cannabis the second most common.

The findings of the study, which was conducted between December 2018 and March 2019 - the peak of the country’s annual festival season - came from 305 samples seized, two-thirds of which contained MDMA.

There are many reasons why drug use has a "slight but consistent" increase during the summer period, with a 2019 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine finding the most likely reason to be because young people are taking a break from university and work, and are attending festivals and concerts. Because they are around more people, their chances of being offered party drugs or seeking them out are increased. Paul Gahlinger’s 2004 study also noted festival-goers often use drugs as a way to help "enhance social intimacy and sensory stimulation".

So with festival season upon us, how can people know what’s safe and what’s not? And how can they find out what’s really in what they might be considering taking?

Speaking to the Herald, Know Your Stuff NZ general manager Casey Spearin, a representative for Aotearoa’s legal and publicly-funded drug checking programme, has laid out what all Kiwis, whether parent, caregiver, bystander or user, need to know about drug usage this festival season and how to stay safe.

Here is everything you need to know:

What is Know Your Stuff NZ?

Know Your Stuff NZ (KYSNZ), a free drug-checking service, is a branch of the Needle Exchange and the New Zealand Drug Foundation and aims to provide drug-related harm reduction services at events around New Zealand.

Casey Spearin from Know Your Stuff NZ.
Casey Spearin from Know Your Stuff NZ.
Home to 18 staff members and over 900 volunteers, the company was founded in 2014 by Wendy Allison, who saw an issue with "dodgy pills going around" festivals and thought "What can we do about it?" Her solution was KYSNZ and her goal was, and continues to be, reducing drug harm.

For years she worked in a legal grey area to offer these services to Kiwis until her advocacy, evidence collection and relationship building with New Zealand Police, universities, music festivals and others led to a law change. Becoming the first country in the world to ever do so, New Zealand changed the Misuse of Drugs Act at the end of 2020 and legalised drug-checking services.

Now, the service is in such high demand that it has more than doubled the amount of testing equipment it owns - increasing from five infrared spectrometers to 12 - and recruited more than 900 volunteers.

How does drug testing work?

Whether you’re visiting a KYSNZ festival tent or heading along to one of their many clinics based all around the country, from the Far North to the lower South Island, the testing process is the same.

You sit down with a KYSNZ representative and provide one to two piles of the substance you would like to be checked. The first is a matchhead-sized pile to check for reagents and the second pile is slightly bigger and is used for the FTIR spectrometer test — the second test is not always required.

Know Your Stuff NZ will take a small sample from your substance to test it.
Know Your Stuff NZ will take a small sample from your substance to test it.
Once your substance has been tested, you will be told what’s in the substance, given harm reduction advice and if for any reason you don’t want to use the substance after it has been tested, KYSNZ can safely dispose of it. KYSNZ are not allowed to confiscate substances no matter how harmful they may be, nor will they tell you that you aren’t allowed to use the substance.

"That’s the prohibition narrative that we’ve [society] been doing for over 50 years now and it’s just not effective. So we do occasionally recommend that people don’t do drugs if it’s something that comes up and it’s very particularly harmful," Spearin says, adding while they won’t confiscate substances, they will provide helpful advice like suggesting a friend stay with the user, the person takes less of the drug than they’d planned to or the user has naloxone (an opioid antagonist) on hand.

As for the legalities of the testing service, you will have full legal protection when your substances are being tested.

Know Your Stuff NZ will not confiscate substances, however it may give you drug harm prevention...
Know Your Stuff NZ will not confiscate substances, however it may give you drug harm prevention advice.
"That’s part of the great thing about this legislation that came through in 2020 is that police can’t hang around where they are, they can’t use your presence at a drug checking clinic or at a festival tent as a warrant to search you," Spearin explains. "They can’t use the results from any tests that we do as any kind of evidence in court."

What drugs to expect this summer

The 2020 festival season was a brutal one. KYSNZ dubbed it the "summer of cathinones" after half of the drugs purporting to be MDMA contained dangerous cathinones, also known as bath salts. One in four MDMA samples showed up as ethylone, a synthetic cathinone.

Users reported being unable to sleep, which sometimes resulted in feelings of anxiety and depression. KYSNZ also knew of at least two people who needed medical help, one of whom was having seizures. The worst-case scenario of taking the drug, whether on purpose or by accident, can be death.

This summer, KYSNZ is anticipating cathinones will show up significantly less than in previous years, with only one in 10 MDMA samples showing cathinones. MDMA is expected to remain the most popular substance over the summer, with New Zealand Police’s quarterly National Wastewater Testing results in July noting "an average of 7.0 kilograms of MDMA was consumed per week in Q1 2022″, an increase on the last quarter.

However, Spearin says there is another substance on the rise and Know Your Stuff is expecting more cocaine on the market.

"We’ve seen this with our testing and also at the border, they’ve seen a real big pick-up in the amount of cocaine," Spearin says, with the National Wastewater Testing results further confirming the fact: "An average of 0.5 kilograms of cocaine was consumed each week in Q1 2022.″ This was more than in the fourth quarter of 2021.

But Spearin says cocaine isn’t the only substance around this summer. "We’ve certainly seen some weird LSD going around, it’s causing weird effects."

Advice for substance users

Spearin says if used the right way, the party drug MDMA can be "pretty safe" for punters: "MDMA has been used safely for 60 years and we don’t actually see long-term health consequences for people if they do use it safely and correctly."

She says the harm comes when people don’t have all the information on how they can use it safely or when it’s substituted with something else or mixed with other substances such as alcohol, medication or other drugs — whether intentionally or not.

"I’ve certainly heard of people who have this conversation and then they realise that their friend is on antidepressants, which maybe they hadn’t discussed before and maybe they shouldn’t take MDMA," she says.

Spearin says anyone planning to use drugs over summer should get them checked by KYSNZ first. They will have testing tents set up at multiple festivals around the country including Northern Base, Twisted Frequency, Sound Splash, Splore and many others. They also have permanent and pop-up clinics all around the country that you can visit at anytime.

If you can’t visit a testing clinic or testing isn’t available at the festival you’re attending, Spearin says, "the best thing people can do is just look out for their mates. Maybe ask them, ‘how are you feeling?’ And, ‘what do you want to get out of tonight?’ And stuff like that because that’ll open up the conversation to ‘how are we going to do these things safely?’"

Founder Wendy Allison (right) at a Know Your Stuff NZ testing station.
Founder Wendy Allison (right) at a Know Your Stuff NZ testing station.
She continues to say, "If someone’s really f***ed up, don’t just leave them. Make sure they get the attention they need. Take them to the medics if they need. Just look out for people."

Where to find a KYSNZ testing station this summer

KYSNZ is in more locations than ever this summer. Its service will be available at the following events and clinics.


Northern Base - Mangawhai

Twisted Frequency - Golden Bay

Aum - South Head

Welcome to Nowhere - Manawatū

Dimension - Northland

Sound Splash - Raglan

Splore - Tapapakanga

Note: NZ Drug Foundation will be offering drug testing at Rhythm and Vines in Gisborne

Pop-up clinics

December 27 - Queenstown Memorial Centre, open 4pm-6.30pm

December 28 - Lake Wānaka Centre, open 4pm-6.30pm

Contact regional manager lachlana@knowyourstuff.nz for queries about testing at these clinics.

Permanent clinics

North Island: Auckland, Waikato, Rotorua, Hamilton, Tauranga, Mt Maunganui, Raglan, Whanganui and Wellington.

South Island: Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin and Invercargill