NZ should (almost) be proud of drug checking progress

What’s wrong with reducing the harm related to illicit drug use and stopping young people from being hospitalised or dying, asks Associate Professor Fiona Hutton.

Drug checking, an evidence-based harm reduction intervention, has been in the news and debated in Parliament recently. I was thrilled to see the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill receive its first reading and be widely supported by the majority of politicians in the House. This is excellent news and a testament to the tireless campaigning efforts of KnowyourstuffNZ (KYSNZ), as well as to the political will to follow the evidence and make courageous decisions around drug law reform that will undoubtedly save lives.

I was, however, less thrilled to note the lack of evidence-based debate from some politicians, as well as the errors in citing the results from my own research report, errors replicated in a blog by the mouthpiece of a well-known “pro-family” organisation.

I was puzzled to read “more than 90 percent would definitely take the drug if confirmed as a pure illegal drug” as a statistic that is “contrary to the claim that 68 percent changed their behaviour after using the service”, until I realised the aforementioned blog had confused two sets of results and treated them as one.

The 90 percent figure is from KYSNZ statistics and the 68 percent figure from my own research—it doesn’t matter that the figures differ, as they were from different pieces of research. The blog also lists statistics from KYSNZ data and refers to them as if they were the results of my research. Errors such as these in reporting (and criticising) research evidence are concerning, as they lead to misinformation and inaccuracy.

Some MPs in the bill-reading debate also confused KYSNZ data with the data I gathered, as well as citing statistics allegedly showing drug checking in the UK caused increased drug-related deaths.

Thankfully, the director of the UK’s Loop drug-checking charity, a leading international researcher in the field, put the record straight, stating “‘there is no link between rates of drug prevalence, drug deaths and drug checking in the UK in five years and in Europe in over 30 years” (Newshub, 21 May 2021).

All ways of collecting data have limitations and what is important in academic research is these limitations are acknowledged in any discussion of the research. Happily, all the limitations some politicians have got so worked up about are clearly stated in the methods section of my research report, as well as on the first page of the report in the executive summary—nothing to hide or be ashamed about here!

The rationale for the sample and research approach is also detailed here. This, too, was criticised by those who don’t seem to have read the report. Why would you try and find out about people’s experiences of drug-checking services and not ask the people who use those services? Why would you not ask festival organisers and medics about their experiences of having drug-checking services at events when you are trying to find out about those very experiences?

Anybody who knows anything about research knows these ways of collecting data are common throughout the social sciences – a large body of research based on similar methods is published regularly in leading journals after stringent peer review by experts in the field.

The conclusions reached in my report are also supported by a large and growing body of academic research that supports drug checking and notes its effectiveness in reducing drug-related harms. New Zealanders should be proud we are leading the way in this important area by being one of the first countries on the verge of introducing a legal licensing system for drug checking.

The usual tired arguments that drug checking encourages drug use were trotted out during the bill reading, despite a lack of evidence to support them. Also trotted out were the well-worn inaccurate statements that drug checking tells young people drug use is okay and drugs such as MDMA are safe. KYSNZ is clear no drug use is the safest drug use—in each test result and on its website. Perhaps those so critical of evidence might actually like to look at some?

But all the drama and political posturing missed the really important issues—that drug checking is effective at reducing harms, does not increase drug use or encourage those who do not use illegal drugs to start using them, and drug checking is about more than the test itself.

Of participants who had used KYSNZ, 87 percent said their knowledge of harm reduction improved and 68 percent changed their behaviour in line with the harm reduction information provided—very positive results providing New Zealand-based research to add to the international evidence.

I found myself wondering how I have gone from being an advocate for evidence-based harm reduction policy, drug law reform and equity to being described as “pro-drug” and a “drug advocate”? These are inaccurate and stigmatising terms when referring to those who campaign for evidence-based reform—an uncomfortable experience and one echoed by many in the field when battling myths and misinformation about drugs and those who use them.

Moral outrage, it seems, is directed at anyone who suggests evidence-based responses to people who use drugs should be explored and supported. Perhaps the important question to ask is, what’s wrong with reducing the harm related to illicit drug use and stopping young people from being hospitalised or dying?

Politicians on both sides of the House should be proud to support drug checking in principle, because it is clear it saves lives—why would anyone not want to stop young people from dying?

Perhaps those wedded to outdated moral ideas that see some drugs and their users as a ‘moral evil’ need to follow the evidence and focus instead on actually reducing harm.

Associate Professor Fiona Hutton is in the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.