Government pushes through urgent legalisation of drug testing before summer festival season

The Government has legalised drug testing before the summer festival season to keep New Zealanders safer.

Andrew Little announced on Tuesday that time-limited legislation will give legal certainty to organisations such as Know Your Stuff, which have operated in a legal grey area until now.

"This law change today provides these services with narrow and time-limited protection this summer against prosecution for short-term possession of illegal drugs while they test them," said the Health Minister.

Drug testing services operate by taking a small amount of whatever substance the person wants to use, and testing it for impurities. The drugs handed over for testing are not returned to the person who bought them.

Previously, these services have been liable for legal action as they are technically in possession of illegal substances by testing small quantities. 

The new Bill means appointed services will be able to receive controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances for testing or destruction, or to pass on to police for destruction or an approved laboratory for further testing.

Little says often people who have their drugs tested and find they are not as pure as they thought will choose not to take them.

"The Government is committed to minimising drug harm and to treating drugs as a health issue - I make no apology for prioritising young New Zealanders' safety this summer with this law change."

He says in the new year the law changes will be developed and regulations around them will be consulted so that by December 2021 a full legal system is in place.

The urgent law change is being celebrated by the Green Party, with drug reform spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick saying they have long called for a change to the law.

"We know recreational drug use at festivals is going to happen no matter how hardcore the approach," she said on Tuesday.

"By legalising drug-checking services, festival-goers will be able to check substances and dispose safely of them. It also means festival organisers and service providers like Know your Stuff will no longer be putting themselves at legal risk for providing these lifesaving services."

Legalising drug testing is also supported by the ACT Party. Its health spokesperson Brooke van Velden says the previous law meant people were likely to take substances with less information about origin, toxicity or purity.

"It's a fact that many people choose to take pills at concerts and festivals, and no one wants to be the loved one of a tragic fatality that could have been avoided."

Little has stressed the law change does not make possession or use of drugs legal.

"It will still be a crime for members of the public to possess illegal drugs or supply them to others."