UK lawmakers told to copy NZ's festival drug-testing regime before more people die

UK lawmakers are being urged to follow New Zealand's lead and legalise drug-testing at music festivals.

There are fears that after a year spent mostly indoors due to COVID-19, Brits will have a "lowered tolerance to drugs" and be more likely to indulge in "risk-taking behaviour" this summer. 

While drug-testing charity The Loop has been present at a few festivals a year since 2016, it operates in a legal grey area - its service is technically illegal, but local police turn a blind eye. 

New Zealand's equivalent - KnowYourStuff - last year got the formal go-ahead from Parliament, which passed a temporary law allowing it to test substances at festivals here. It's working on permanent legislation, expected to be in place for this upcoming summer's events. 

With the UK festival industry in disarray after a year in hibernation, the government tasked its Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee to look into how it can be revived.

Its final report, released earlier this week, recommended when festivals resume, "the Home Secretary should make regulations under section 7 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that allow organisations conducting drug checking to operate lawfully".

"Thereafter, the Government should introduce a dedicated licensing scheme for drug checking to set a clear legal framework and minimum standards that service providers must meet."

Reasons given include that " a compressed festival season, the likely circulation of high-strength, adulterated drugs and increased risk-taking after lockdown will lead to a spike in drug-related deaths".

"We heard compelling arguments that drug checking saves lives, but in many cases service providers and police forces are being constrained by a lack of clarity in the legal framework and the need for a stronger evidence base. While it would be preferable for the UK to develop a dedicated legal framework for drug checking services, rather than try to retrofit the existing legislation, this will take time."

The 42-page report mentioned New Zealand a number of times, suggesting the UK copy Health Minister Andrew Little's Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act "to allow drug and substance testing services to operate legally". 

"New Zealand's Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act enables drug testing services to legally handle controlled drugs for the purposes of testing a substance’s composition or disposing of a sample. It remains illegal for members of the public to possess controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances."

Little's Bill was passed into law 86-33, with support from every party in Parliament except National. National MP Simon Bridges told Newshub in May that pill-testing encouraged people to use drugs and was linked to a rise in fatalities in the UK.

Fiona Measham, chair in criminology at the University of Liverpool and director of The Loop, told Newshub that was "clearly nonsense", with no deaths at any festivals where The Loop's services were present, and evidence of a reduction in hospitalisations and reduced willingness to purchase drugs at festivals in future.

Know Your Stuff also dismissed Bridges' suggestion that legalising drug-testing was behind three deaths at New Zealand festivals this past summer. It wasn't present at any of the festivals where the deaths occurred, and there's also no evidence yet any of the deaths were drug-related. 

The Loop welcomed the DCMS select committee's recommendations, saying it was "clear from our work... that drug checking can reduce harmful drug use, particularly when combined with an early warning system to alert the public to dangerous substances in circulation".

"Drug checking is a commonsense approach, successfully used to reduce drug-related harms all over the world in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and Austria," The Loop said in a statement.

"The New Zealand Government's Department of Health is currently developing a drug checking licensing scheme, the first of its kind in the world. The UK government has the opportunity to lead public health responses to drug-related harms by being one of the first countries in the world, along with New Zealand, to create a dedicated drug-checking licensing scheme. "

Both Know Your Stuff and The Loop are funded through donations. Measham says The Loop can't afford to apply for licences to handle prohibited substances, so hasn't bothered. 

Know Your Stuff managing director told the NZ Herald earlier this week they can't expand their services without more funding. Green Party Drug Reform spokeswoman Chlöe Swarbrick said without public funding, it contradicts "the argument that's being made by Government, that this is a public good, because we are not treating or funding it like one". 

Submissions on the new Bill close on June 24.