New Zealand has enshrined protections for drug checking in law, in what advocates say is a world first.
The country’s new law to protect pill testing – where organisations chemically test illicit drugs to monitor for dangerous contaminants – has been voted in by the government, and is expected to pass into law next week.
“We’re the first country to specifically make legislation to protect drug checking,” said Wendy Allison, the managing director of drug-checking organisation KnowYourStuffNZ. While a number of countries, such as the Netherlands and Portugal have longstanding drug-checking services, many operate in a legal grey zone, she said – whereas New Zealand’s laws would explicitly protect the practice.
“There are a number of countries that have been doing it under various different formats for a lot of different years. In the US and in the UK … They all operate in a legal grey area, that they’re not explicitly illegal. In the Netherlands it is supported, but it’s not legislated to protect the people who do it or the clients. That’s the difference here, is that we now have legislation that facilitates it.”
New Zealand had temporarily allowed legal drug testing, but the new legislation makes it permanent, and allocates $800,000 of government funding to help carry it out.
“This legislation is about keeping people safe,” the New Zealand health minister, Andrew Little, said in a statement. “The drug-checking services we have had running have detected and intercepted potentially deadly substances circulating in the community.”
Little said that last summer, 40% of MDMA tested had turned out to be eutylone, “a potentially dangerous synthetic cathinone also known as bath salts, and linked to deaths and hospitalisations”. He said research by Victoria University for the Ministry of Health found 68% of festival-goers who used drug-checking services said they changed their behaviour once they saw the results.
Across the Tasman, calls for pill testing after drug-related festival deaths in New South Wales received a cool reception from politicians. Australian data released last year found nearly two-thirds of the Australian public were in favour of pill testing at music festivals, but the policy had been rebuffed by leaders including the former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and the Victorian Labor government.
Pill testing had been repeatedly called for in coronial inquiries, including this year in Victoria, in an inquest into deaths of four men and a boy who thought they were taking MDMA.
“The conservative approach is, ‘well, just don’t take drugs then,’ but it’s plainly obvious that that is not stopping people from doing it,” Allison said. “What we do is provide more information that helps people assess the risks more accurately – and in a lot of cases that is making people approach drugs more safely, whether that be not taking them at all, or taking less, or not taking them with other substances.”
“The funding announced … for drug-checking services at festivals will save lives,” the Green party drug reform spokesperson, Chlöe Swarbrick, said in a statement. “However, it’s just a start.”
The party is advocating for $3m in funding for drug testing services and premises around the country. “It’s ludicrous to pretend drug consumption only happens at music festivals and not also bars, clubs and weekend parties … Everyone who needs these services should have access.”