Drug checking at festivals: reefer madness v the facts

Whenever the topic of drug checking at festivals hits the headlines, moral panic is usually not far behind. Opponents claim drug checking just increases drug use and results in more kids popping pills. But the evidence doesn’t support these claims.

Many colourful pills
Research shows drug checking does not increase the use of illegal drugs or encourage people to start using them

“International research demonstrates that drug checking, which has been around for about 60 years, is a successful intervention that reduces harm and saves lives,” said Dr Fiona Hutton, associate professor at the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Drug checking services test illegal drugs to find out what they contain and whether they’ve been adulterated with other substances.

“Letting these services operate is not about making a judgement call on whether taking drugs is right or wrong, or focusing on reducing drug use,” Dr Hutton said.

“Drug checking accepts people will take illegal substances and aims to reduce the harm from using them, including stopping people being hospitalised.”

Despite opponents’ claims, research also shows drug checking does not increase the use of illegal drugs or encourage people to start using them.

New Zealand research

Results from Dr Hutton’s 2020 report on drug checking at New Zealand festivals, commissioned by the Ministry of Health, are in line with international findings.

The report includes results from survey research with 786 festival attendees, as well as 105 people who do not attend these events.

Among festival goers in the survey, 155 had used a drug checking service. About two-thirds (68 percent) said they’d either disposed of the drugs they’d had tested or took the service’s advice on how to reduce harm from the substances.

Eighty-seven percent of this group felt their knowledge of how to reduce harm improved as a result of using the service, Dr Hutton said.

Across all survey respondents, there was majority support for drug checking: 97 percent agreed these services were a good idea.

Dr Hutton also interviewed a range of people for her research, including festival organisers, medical personnel at events, parents, and volunteers working for the drug checking service KnowYourStuffNZ. More than 60 people were interviewed and all were in favour of drug checking as a means of reducing harm.

“Interviewees noted that young people will take drugs regardless of a substance’s illegal status and that drug checking services were therefore a crucial harm reduction intervention,” she said.

The government has come to the same conclusion. In October, it announced $800,000 funding to support drug testing services.

Temporary legislation that allows drug checking services to operate is set to expire in December. However, legislation to make the law change permanent is expected to be passed by the end of this year.