Govt moves to give drug-checking at festivals legal breathing room

Photo: File / Getty Images
Last season, KnowYourStuffNZ tested 1368 samples between April 2019 and March this year, and 86 per cent of the time the drug was what users thought it was. Photo: Getty Images
Festival hosts will be able to have drug-checking services at their events this summer and neither of them will face prosecution.

Health Minister Andrew Little revealed this morning that the Government will pass an urgent law to provide legal breathing space for drug-checking in time for the summer festival season.

It comes as a surprise after both Little and Police Minister Poto Williams recently told the Herald that such a law change was "unlikely" before the end of the year, given there were only two sitting weeks left in Parliament.

Drug-checking allows users to hand over a sample and be told whether it is what they think it is, or if it is laced with something more sinister. Some drugs at Rhythm and Vines in 2018 were found to have pesticides, industrial paint compounds and paracetamol, while there have been several health warnings overseas for fentanyl-laced cannabis.

Currently, section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act says that anyone who knowingly allows a premises to be used for a drug offence faces up to 10 years in prison, depending on the drug in question.

It created a grey area where drug-checkers or festival hosts could face charges, though drug-checking organisation KnowYourStuffNZ has said it has never been threatened with prosecution or harassed by police.

Last season, KnowYourStuffNZ tested 1368 samples between April 2019 and March this year, and 86 per cent of the time the drug was what users thought it was.

The new bill will enable the director-general of health to appoint a drug-checking service by way of notice in the Gazette.

"This gives welcome reassurance to those operating the services and festival organisers who host them that they will not be criminalised for their efforts to keep young New Zealanders safe this summer," Little said.

It will still be illegal to take or supply illicit drugs.

"This is not about condoning young New Zealanders' use of drugs. We would prefer they didn't," Little said.

"But the evidence is that when allowed to operate, drug checking services can significantly reduce drug harm."

The bill will only be an interim measure, and next year the Government will develop a long-term solution.

KnowYourStuffNZ managing director Wendy Allison was "very happy" with the announcement and looked forward to engaging in talks about the next step.

Taking a dangerous substance to a lab to be checked further, for example, was "currently a really dodgy thing for us to do" because it put staff - usually volunteers - in possession of an illegal substance.

She added that one long-term issue was funding, especially if drug-checking services were to be rolled out to main centres. KnowYourStuffNZ has one infrared spectrometer, which costs about $50,000 each.

"One we think is worth considering is funding from the Proceeds of Crime Act, which is supposed to used to reduce drug-related harm."

It was difficult to gauge how many hospitalisations or deaths KnowYourStuffNZ might have prevented, but Allison noted the 13 people who were hospitalised after taking N-Ethylpentylone in 2018.

"That is a substance we can detect, and every time we have detected it the people who had it then said they weren't going to take.

"So we could have prevented those hospitalisations, and ICUs cost about $3000 per person per night, so it doesn't take very long before the economic argument comes out in favour of drug-checking."

A law change was mooted last parliamentary term but was stymied by NZ First, which called for personal responsibility and more research.

Little said that research, by Victoria University Associate Professor Fiona Hutton, showed that a law change would likely see more use of drug-checking services by festival hosts.

"The study found that most people who have their drugs checked change their behaviour, and come away with increased knowledge of how to keep themselves and their friends safe," he said.

The Greens and Act will support the bill.

"All drugs carry risk, but pushing people who use them into the shadows makes them riskier," Green Party drug law reform spokeswoman Chloe Swarbrick said.

Act's health spokeswoman Brooke van Velden said people using drugs at concerts and festivals was the reality.

"No one wants to be the loved-one of a tragic fatality that could have been avoided."

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