Festival drug testing – Expert Reaction

It’s January and the sun’s out, which means it’s festival season and again there is talk about providing drug testing for festival-goers.

The discussion around drug testing has moved ahead in recent weeks, with Police Minister Stuart Nash saying he wants drug-testing kits at all music festivals by next summer.

The SMC gathered comment from an expert on the frontline of drug testing and an independent researcher on the issue. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

Dr Benedikt Fischer, Hugh Green Foundation Chair in Addiction Research and Professor, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“‘Drug testing’ services can be a useful complementary measure to reduce risks associated with drug use related harms such as overdose or use of contaminated/excessively harmful drugs – including at music festival or other larger social fun gatherings.

“These interventions, however, in no way, are a ‘perfect’ or solely sufficient intervention for these purposes, and come with a variety of limitations, including possible false senses of safety.

“For example:

  • test results may not be fully accurate and/or cover only select spectrae of possible drug components or contaminants (depending on technology used);
  • many potential users will not utilise these services (e.g. too onerous or time-consuming), especially in circumstances of ‘partying’ and ongoing drug use;
  • and/or they will consume drugs despite indications of possible risks.

“Service access and utilisation also depends on who runs the services – e.g police-run services can be perceived as a barrier.

“Drug testing services ought to be complemented by other basic prevention measures, including comprehensive and fact-based drug education and information, basic care like free water provision, as well as low-threshold and accessible health or emergency services.

“Drug testing services, or other on-the-spot interventions are also not a substitute for effective help or treatment services for drug users who have substance use related problems or disorders, and potential users should be advised to seek professional help if they have problems.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Jez Weston, Deputy Manager, KnowYourStuffNZ, comments:

“In the past twelve months, we have seen the New Zealand Government take a progressive stance towards drug checking, with Police Minister Stuart Nash stating that he will introduce legislation to make it explicitly legal before next festival season. His position follows positive statements from three of the past four Prime Ministers speaking in favour. There is a simple reason for this – there is good evidence that drug checking reduces the harm from drugs. It also reduces the use of drugs, with festival attendees willingly disposing of particularly harmful drugs.

“Internationally, we have seen the first academic research published by Professor Fiona Measham of Durham based on the work of The Loop, a UK drug harm reduction organisation. This research found a huge reduction in drug-related hospitalisations at events where drug checking was present. This matches KnowYourStuffNZ’s experience – festival attendees are very willing to not take drugs when those drugs are not what they believe them to be.

“It is disappointing to hear the statements from the New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian that she has not seen evidence of the effectiveness of festival drug checking in reducing harm. The evidence is now substantial, with the UK academic research matching five years of results from New Zealand and twenty years of work in Europe, as well as a global review of 29 existing drug checking services by Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

“One of Berejiklian’s main concerns is that drug checking will create a false sense of security in users – an understandable concern, however, this is not supported by the evidence or by KnowYourStuff’s feedback that people who have had drugs checked are not only more cautious ‘on the day’ but are changing their approach to drug use overall. This happens because the testing is part of a comprehensive service providing information about the content of drugs, the risks associated with use and overuse, contraindications, and danger signs to look out for. At no time are clients told that their drugs are safe. Thus, having drugs checked makes people more aware of the risks and more cautious about future drug use.

“Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s debate about drug checking has moved right past whether to do it and on to how to do it properly. There are several public policy issues to be ironed out. The first, just like many other health interventions, is who should pay. There is an overall saving to the economy if a young person’s good night out doesn’t result in an ambulance ride, a hospital stay, or worse – however, the stigma associated with drug use may make the notion of public funding for drug checking unpalatable to the taxpayer.

“Other funding options include a fee paid by events for the service as infrastructure – similar to security, medics, and portable toilets. Proceeds of Crime Act funding is also available to fund drug health initiatives and could purchase more spectrometers, which are the main up-front cost associated with drug checking. All of these would require changes to the law to be feasible. How the industry will be regulated, what training is required to carry out the work, and how accountability will be structured are all questions that should be decided ahead of a national rollout of drug checking. Therefore, it’s important that the Government moves quickly if Stuart Nash’s vision is to be realised by next festival season.

“KnowYourStuffNZ is part of a wider movement within the festival community to provide more support for attendees, as is the duty of festival organisers under New Zealand’s health and safety regulations. That includes water, shade, clean toilets, and medical care. What that looks like in the medium term is yet to be clear. Again, the UK provides good examples, with their Events Industry Forum publishing the ‘Purple Guide to Health Safety and Welfare at Music and Other Events‘. The NZ events industry is not so large or professionalised, but it’s time for everyone to up their game when it comes to the welfare of attendees.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Weston is a volunteer for KnowYourStuffNZ and does not get paid for this work.