Summer festivals: What legal drug testing will look like at events this festival season

Newly-legalised drug testing will be available at a number of festivals this summer - but what can New Years' revellers expect from the process?

Earlier this month, the Government pushed through urgent legislation to legalise drug testing ahead of the festival season, with a number of large-scale events set to take place over New Years and January. 

Drug testing services, provided by organisations such as Know Your Stuff, operate by taking a small sample of the substance a person is intending to take and testing it for impurities. The portion of the drug provided is then destroyed. The service is free of charge.

The technology used (FT-IR spectroscopy) can tell prospective drug takers exactly what substances their sample contains, including active ingredients, fillers, cuts or potentially dangerous substitutions or additives. It cannot measure purity.

Previously, these organisations have operated in a legal grey area as by testing small quantities, they are technically in possession of illegal substances - meaning they are at risk of prosecution.

However, the recent law change now provides the organisations with time-limited protection against prosecution for short-term possession of illegal substances. The new Bill means appointed services will be able to receive controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances for testing or destruction - or pass the drugs to police for destruction or an approved laboratory for further testing.

Speaking to Magic Talk on Monday morning, Know Your Stuff managing director Wendy Allison gave a brief overview of what festival-goers can expect if they are interested in having their drugs tested this summer.

MDMA. Photo credit: Getty

"We will have a tent and there will be signage out so you can find us. You would come to the tent, there's a waiting area, someone would meet you and talk you through the process and what it's all about, the legal situation, etc," she explained.

"Then you would go to the testing room, we would take a sample of your substance, we would test it with the agents and a spectrometer - find out what's in it - and then we would tell you what's in it and give you harm reduction information associated with whatever substance you have. 

"Then you would decide whether or not [you want] to take it based on that information. That's it in a nutshell."

The process is designed to promote greater awareness - and therefore improve safety - among prospective drug takers.

Opponents of drug testing services argue the organisations encourage drug use as they are actively meeting with people in possession of illegal substances and not confiscating the product. However, Allison argues that's not what the services are about.

"We don't care about use, we care about harm," she said, noting that evidence obtained from similar programmes in the US and Europe shows no link between drug testing and increased drug use.

Know Your Stuff is keeping quiet about where its volunteers will be based this summer. As a small, unfunded organisation, the service lacks the staff and gear to cover every event - however, by revealing the festivals it will be attending, it will also reveal the festivals it won't be.

"People with dodgy drugs to sell may target those events," Allison explained. 

Know Your Stuff's discretion also protects festival organisers who perhaps aren't willing to advertise their association with a drug testing service - for example, the organisation is not "on-brand" with a family-friendly event, while others may be unsure of the implications.

Amid the pandemic, drug testing is critical as it's likely that drug manufacturers will be opting for potentially dangerous substitutions, Allison said, with ongoing difficulties getting products into New Zealand due to the border restrictions. 

She also noted that festival attendees may be more likely to risk it all due to the uncertainty of the current climate, with the potential for events to be cancelled if a community outbreak were to occur.

For more information on Know Your Stuff's services, click here.