Opinion: How a dumb law is causing dodgy drugs to thrive at NZ festivals

Wendy Allison for The Spinoff

OPINION: The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 was made in a time when the range of drugs available was small and it was still believed that criminalising drug use would deter people from trying them.

Its purpose was, and still is, to reduce drug harm by reducing drug use - however, almost 45 years on, it has become very clear that it has reduced neither use nor harm.

Illicit drugs are more available, more cheaply, than ever before, and drug related harm has not gone away - in fact it's worth noting that every drug problem we have in New Zealand has developed since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

There is a substantial and growing body of evidence that shows prohibition has added to the harms associated with drug use.

One unintended consequence of prohibition is that manufacturers, seeking to avoid the risk of holding large quantities of an illicit substance (remember that punishments are often based on quantity), began producing new, stronger substances to mimic the effects of better-known ones.

Ecstasy tablets on black background
Photo credit: Getty

Methamphetamine, n-ethylpentylone and other cathinones, and synnies (synthetic substances that act on the cannabinoid receptors), are all substances that found their way into the illicit market in this way. These substances are more potent than the speed, MDMA, and cannabis that they were substituted for, with less well-known effects and a greatly increased likelihood of harm.

New Zealand has seen 45 deaths in the last year from synnies, and at least 13 hospitalisations from n-ethylpentylone alone. Globally, new substances are emerging at a rate of approximately six a month.

Another unintended consequence of the Misuse of Drugs Act is that Section 12, which criminalises anyone who allows premises to be used for offences against the Act, is deterring organisers of events from inviting drug harm reduction services such as KnowYourStuffNZ to carry out pill testing at their venue.

To introduce harm reduction is to acknowledge you know people are using drugs in your venue, which is technically a crime. Section 12 was never intended to prevent harm reduction from happening - its aim is to deter people from allowing sales of drugs out of their home or car, or in nightclubs - but with a potential jail sentence of 10 years for "knowingly allowing a premises" to be used to take LSD, it's not surprising some event organisers are unwilling to take the risk.

So we have a situation in New Zealand where potentially deadly new substances are circulating in the illicit market and people are dying from them, but the law that was intended to keep us safe is instead preventing services aimed at reducing harm from operating effectively.

It has not stopped people using drugs or being harmed by them - instead, it has increased the risks. The Misuse of Drugs Act is not fit for purpose, and if we continue using it to guide drug policy there is no doubt that more people will die.

There is some good news though. The current government has rejected a US move to recommit to the War on Drugs and has instead committed to an intention to treat drugs as a health issue.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently released Regulation – The Responsible Control of Drugs, a report outlining recommendations for a health-based approach to drug control.

New Zealand's own NZ Drug Foundation has released Whakawatea te Huarahi – a model drug law to 2020 and beyond. Canada just legalised cannabis. Evidence from Portugal and other countries that have taken a health-based approach to drugs is showing not only a reduction in harm, but a reduction in use of drugs.

We have both sufficient evidence to support a move from punitive to compassionate drug law, and sufficient guidance to ensure the move is effective, alongside a government that appears to have the political will.

The festival season is just around the corner. Last summer KnowYourStuffNZ found 44 different substances in its testing, of which 20 were substances we had not seen before.

We are prepared to deal with another onslaught of dangerous new substances this year, identifying them and helping people protect themselves where the law has failed. There really is no time like the present for the government to back its words and review our drug laws. There are no excuses left, it's time to act.

Wendy Allison is the founder of anti-drug harm organisation KnowYourStuffNZ