Pingers, parties and politics: How festival drug testers are trying to save lives

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As police make record drug busts, dealers struggle to spend their cash. Partygoers recover in intensive care prompting politicians to push for legal drug testing. Meanwhile a woman who can’t score party pills turns to meth. Stuff looks at New Zealand’s changing drug scene.

When you’re stuck at the bottom of the world, you take what you can get. For Claire*, that’s cocaine and ketamine, occasionally MDMA. 

Or at least that’s what she hopes she’s getting. She knows she’s not, not all the time. There’s a difference from bag to bag, dealer to dealer, “especially with things like ‘cocaine’, which is probably just methamphetamine and washing powder”.

Since returning from Berlin, where quality drugs were cheap and plentiful, the 34-year-old Aucklander doesn’t take drugs as often; they’re “s…” here. But that doesn’t stop a lot of Kiwis. It’s that “she’ll be right” attitude, Claire says. 

It’s a mentality Wendy Allison knows too well. The director of drug testing service KnowYourStuffNZ, her last five summers have been spent on the festival circuit, picking out pesticides and bath salts before they slip past the lips and nostrils of unsuspecting festival-goers.

Last year they tested 805 samples across 13 events – more than double the previous year. 

Promoters find it easier to get drug-testing at smaller festivals - but at events like Bay Dreams, it's a no go.

BRADEN FASTIER/STUFF

Promoters find it easier to get drug-testing at smaller festivals – but at events like Bay Dreams, it’s a no go.

She’s seen some worrying things: cathinones, or bath salts, are the big one. If someone thinks they’ve got MDMA and they haven’t, bath salts are the likely imposter – and while some of the effects are similar, users may also experience anxiety attacks, heart arrhythmia and fits.

Overdosing is more likely because people don’t get the high they’re expecting, so they go back for more. Deaths overseas and hospitalisations in New Zealand have cathinones to blame. 

Super-strength MDMA is another concern. Four years ago, the pills started showing up in Europe and the UK, linked to hospitalisations and deaths; two summers later they were here. Allison is expecting to see more of the pills this season, with some containing up to four times the average dose of MDMA.

But it’s the Kiwi attitude to drugs that worries her most. Drugs in New Zealand have historically been of low and fluctuating quality. Without any way of finding out what’s in them, Kiwis have been “trained to take things without knowing what they are”, she said.

“There’s a resigned attitude that in order to have a good time, you’ve got to go through this risk of having a not-so-good time – and as long as you don’t die, that’s fine.”

Partiers may think their white powder is MDMA, but it could be bath salts.

ROSA WOODS/STUFF

Partiers may think their white powder is MDMA, but it could be bath salts.

Allison has also found a startling lack of knowledge even among regular drug takers. People don’t know what the average dose of MDMA is, they don’t know why it’s not a good idea to snort it (it bypasses the liver and stomach filters – not great if it’s MDMA and even worse if it’s bath salts in disguise). 

But give people information and they will use it: 87 per cent of clients surveyed by KnowYourStuff last summer said their behaviour had changed as a result of using the service. Sixty-two per cent of people whose drugs weren’t what they thought said they wouldn’t take them. 

KnowYourStuff does more than test people’s drugs and send them on their way. For starters, they don’t give any substances back after testing; they are destroyed in the process. The first thing they tell people is that taking any drugs is risky. The next is what the specific risks are, and what users can do to reduce them, discussing dosages, symptoms, what could go wrong, what not to mix. 

Wendy Allison (left) will be back out on the festival circuit this summer.

ROSA WOODS/STUFF

Wendy Allison (left) will be back out on the festival circuit this summer.

Testing one person’s drugs might prevent one death, but changing how people approach drug use will have the biggest effect on harm, Allison said. The shift from “she’ll be right” is starting, with people more aware of risks and less willing to accept dodgy drugs as normal. 

At-home, drug testing has become a regular part of going out for 27-year-old Thomas Shoebridge and his friends. The internet has fed a desire for information, and if people can find out what’s in their baggie, they want to. Sometimes he finds speed cut with MDMA; meth is common. If it’s not what he was expecting, he doesn’t take it. 

Would he use pill testing if it was available at events? “100,000 per cent.” A club promoter as well as a punter, he said it made no sense that he had to provide food when booze was on sale, but nothing for people on drugs.

Friendly Potential promoter Simon Wallace wants it to be easier for events to have on-site testing.

SUPPLIED/DYLAN COOK

Friendly Potential promoter Simon Wallace wants it to be easier for events to have on-site testing.

It’s not just that there’s no legal imperative to offer harm reduction facilities for drug users – it’s difficult, bordering on illegal. Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act makes it a crime to knowingly permit a venue to be used for drug use, which means festival testing operates in a legal grey area.

No-one has been charged for having it on-site, but the threat looms large. It’s hard to get past councils, insurers, police and stakeholders, even when the promoters themselves are keen. And they are: they don’t want a death on their hands.

Mitch Lowe has had some success getting drug-testing across the line, but only at smaller events such as Raglan and Timaru Soundsplash. At the major festivals he puts on – Bay Dreams, One Love – it’s been a “flat no”. He can’t see the sense in that – the more people, the greater the risk, the more potential there is for reducing harm.

“It’s frustrating to have something that’s right there, that has evidence that shows it’s something that reduces risk, and for us to not be able to put that into effect,” Simon Wallace says. He’s one of the people behind Friendly Potential, an Auckland club night that has spawned two festivals. Organisers weren’t dealing with situations where people might take drugs, he said – they did. 

An alert was issued last year after drugs were found with pesticides and paint in them.

SEB KLINKUM/STUFF

An alert was issued last year after drugs were found with pesticides and paint in them.

Rhythm and Vines festival director Kieran Spillane echoed that. Last year, drugs laced with pesticides and paint were found at the event. Party pills have surged in popularity in the past five years, he said. Look at the confiscations, the first aid tent, the behaviour of festival-goers and you’ll see that. 

But before that, look at our borders. Customs has seen a massive increase in ecstasy and MDMA seizures at New Zealand borders. In 2019, Customs officers seized 703.5 kilograms of ecstasy and MDMA – up from just 4.1kg in 2015.

With the number of people taking drugs on the rise, we’re starting to see some movement on festival testing. Earlier this month, the Government announced a $59,000 study that will take place this summer, looking at the effectiveness of drug testing as a harm reduction tool.

A Victoria University of Wellington criminology team will be going to events, conducting interviews and sifting through data provided by KnowYourStuff. The evidence they come back with will be used to shape any potential next steps by the Government. 

At the moment, National opposes drug testing. NZ First only recently came around to it after a heated debate from its youth wing at its annual conference. Allison hopes the evidence to come out of this summer will be enough to secure a law change. But right now they’re going headfirst into festival season with Section 12 as it is, and that worries her. 

“If we are unable to attend a particular event because of the Government’s lack of action on this and somebody dies at that event, I will be blaming the Government for that,” she said. 

Wendy Allison says there's a startling lack of knowledge even among regular drug takers.

ROSA WOODS/STUFF

Wendy Allison says there’s a startling lack of knowledge even among regular drug takers.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to prompt action, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick said, pointing to the pastoral care laws passed in the wake of the death of University of Canterbury student Mason Pendrous, who lay dead in his room for weeks. She has been leading the charge for drug law reform, and said she welcomed this summer’s research project as a way of strengthening the case for legal drug checking. 

When politicians consider whether to change the law, Allison said they would be dealing with one fundamental question: “Should we or should we not try to save the lives of people who have broken the law?”

“For us the bad thing is that they die – not that they take drugs.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

 


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