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The legal grey area of drug testing at NZ's upcoming festivals

Synthesised drugs much more potent than the ones they mimic are catching on here, raising fresh questions about the strength of our drug laws.

As summer approaches, the team of volunteers at KnowYourStuffNZ are gearing up for another season of festivals. Last year, they were at 13 events offering the facilities for people to test their drugs and find out exactly what is in them.

Wendy Allison, the organisation’s managing director, says it keeps a record each year and the drugs of choice for young people are pretty much always the same. No 1 is MDMA (ecstasy), followed by LSD, cocaine and ketamine.

However, 70 different substances have been found in drugs sold under the names of those four illegal highs. “In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of a stimulant called N-ethylpentylone,” says Allison. “People buy it thinking they are getting [ecstasy], but it’s active in much smaller doses, so it is easy to take too much.”

Also known as “brown sugar” or ephylone, N-ethylpentylone is one of the new wave of “novel psychoactive substances” (NPS) invading the festival and dance-music scenes that are designed to mimic established drugs but are much more powerful. It is often found as a white or coloured powder that looks exactly the same as ecstasy.

KnowYourStuff’s testing at festivals has shown that about a quarter of the drugs that people believe to be ecstasy are not as expected. The most common substitutions come from the cathinone family of stimulants, known as “bath salts”, including N-ethylpentylone, which can also be used to mimic cocaine. Cathinones are chemically similar to amphetamines.

Read more: How can we stop the rise of new psychoactive substances like fentanyl?

KnowYourStuffNZ’s Wendy Allison. Photo/Jade Cvetkov/Listener

So far, there haven’t been any deaths linked to N-ethylpentylone in New Zealand, but it has led to some hospitalisations, including 13 people who attended the Electric Avenue festival in Christchurch last year, prompting police to issue a warning.

In October, four people at the Listen In concert at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium were hospitalised, three in a critical condition, after consuming what was presumed to be ecstasy. The concert drew 20,000 people into what was billed as “the largest marquee in Australasia” to watch international acts Flume, Diplo and ScHoolboy Q. The event gained added notoriety after video footage was posted on social media showing patrons “gallivanting” on the marquee roof, up to 25m off the ground, and climbing support pillars. High as kites.

KnowYourStuff, a volunteer group that relies on donations, posted on its website afterwards: “We are not going to speculate what those people might have taken, but we are concerned for this coming summer about three big risks: people taking too much MDMA, people taking cathinones and people taking new and unknown substances.”

Although synthesised to mimic drugs that have been around for a long time, many of these novel psychoactive substances are much stronger and more dangerous – and if users aren’t aware of the difference in strength, they can be in flirting with disaster.

Risk-taking at the Listen In concert in Auckland.

Fear of fentanyl

Most worrying is the prospect that fentanyl, responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States, could gain a foothold in New Zealand. Fentanyl is most commonly manufactured into a powder that is injected like heroin, but it is up to 50 times more potent. Investigative journalist Ben Westhoff says fentanyl is “basically a cheap filler” that can be cut into not only heroin but also cocaine, methamphetamines and other pills. Much of it originates from China.

KnowYourStuff detected fentanyl at a festival in New Zealand in 2018, but it remains an outlier in this country.

N-ethylpentylone, on the other hand, has become more prevalent over the two summers since it was first detected here in early 2017. KnowYourStuff’s website says the stimulant produces some of the same effects as MDMA, but users have described the experience as “seedy”, “cracky” and much less pleasant. Physical effects can include raised pulse and blood pressure, high body temperature, convulsions, acidosis and rapid muscle breakdown. Psychological effects include agitation, paranoia, compulsion to redose, difficulty sleeping for up to 36 hours and temporary psychosis. “A particular risk is that N-ethylpentylone is significantly more potent than MDMA, so it is very easy to take too much. A common dose for MDMA is around 100 milligrams, whereas a dose for N-ethylpentylone can be as little as 30 milligrams. If people believe they have MDMA and take 100 milligrams of N-ethylpentylone, then they are going to be in a very risky situation.”

Adding to the risk is what else goes into the pills. Last summer, organisers at the Rhythm and Vines festival near Gisborne issued a warning via the festival app after intercepting drugs laced with pesticides in a bag at the entrance.

“Tests indicated that the seized substance claimed to be MDMA was in fact various non-psychoactive compounds, pesticides, antibiotics [and] other industrial reagents,” festival organisers said. Police said traces of paint were also detected.

A spectrometer used to identify drug constituents. Photo/KnowYourStuffNZ/Supplied

Stayin’ alive

Generally, the young people who turn up at the KnowYourStuff tent at a festival aren’t regular users. What they want is to have a recreational experience with drugs at festivals maybe two or three times a year.

The volunteer group’s first principle is that the safest approach is not to take drugs. “That’s literally the first thing we say to our clients,” Allison says.

“Most people grow out of this behaviour. We just want to help them stay alive so they get the chance.”

The evidence is that if the drugs they have tested are not what they are purported to be – either because they’re adulterated or simply another substance altogether – about two-thirds of people will decide not to take them, many choosing to put them in the disposal jar to be destroyed. Those who persist are told about the risks and appropriate dosage.

Volunteers make sure medics at the event are briefed on what sorts of drugs are circulating so they can treat any patients appropriately.

After the Rhythm and Vines interception in January, Police Minister Stuart Nash said he would like to see testing at all festivals this coming summer. That isn’t looking likely. For a start, KnowYourStuff has only three spectrometers, the instrument needed to identify drug constituents. But the main obstacle is that the service is operating in a legal grey area. The Misuse of Drugs Act makes it a crime for an event organiser to knowingly provide a venue for the taking of illegal drugs, and having testing facilities onsite acknowledges that drugs are being used. For this reason, high-profile events such as Rhythm and Vines, which last year attracted 21,000 people, aren’t prepared to take the risk of having a testing service until it is legal.

After Listen In last month, Auckland Stadiums director James Parkinson told the NZ Herald organisers had considered inviting KnowYourStuff to the event. “However, these drugs are illegal substances and are prohibited items in our venues. The concept of testing and returning illegal substances to patrons places us, as a venue operator, in a very difficult legal position.”

Allison says the idea that drugs are “handed back” is a persistent misconception. The organisation’s volunteers never handle the drugs being tested – a tiny sample is placed for testing by the person holding them. It is destroyed as part of testing.

Following an inquest into the deaths of six young people at music festivals in New South Wales in the past two summers, the state’s deputy coroner, Harriet Grahame, has called for the introduction of pill testing and a move away from hard-line policing tactics, such as strip-searching and drug dogs. The deaths were all attributed to “MDMA toxicity or complications of MDMA use”, though five of the six had other drugs in their system.

Interim testing on cards

Here, the Government is understood to be considering an interim programme of drugs testing this summer, which would be supervised and/or run by a team of qualified researchers. The exercise would be monitored to provide data, including on the incidence of adulteration, the willingness of potential drug-takers to seek a test of their drugs and the percentage of those who chose not to take the drugs after advice from the on-site tester.

That data would be used to develop a permanent testing strategy, if the programme showed it had the potential to be effective.

New Zealand First has been reluctant to sanction on-site testing because its policy is not to liberalise drug laws. It has expressed concern that on-site testing would encourage more drug-taking. However, after a close vote at its annual party conference last month in favour of testing, the caucus has reconsidered the issue, and may accept an interim testing regime. Its youth wing made a strong case in favour of urgent testing intervention, arguing it was not a signal that drug-taking was okay, but quite the opposite.

The party may also recognise the political risk of being seen to block the Government taking at least interim action, given the likelihood of further incidents this summer.

National is adamantly against festival drug-testing, saying the best harm-reduction policy is to discourage drugs, full stop. Its drugs law spokesperson, Brett Hudson, says any festival testing regime would be bound to be read as further evidence that taking drugs is okay, and that police will turn a blind eye. He says the simple message, “Don’t”, is still the best.

In the meantime, KnowYourStuffNZ is getting ready for the biggest night of the year, New Year’s Eve, and says she expects to have a team out somewhere in New Zealand every weekend this summer.

“We would like to move to a user-pays model so events would pay for the service, as they do with Portaloos and security, then cover it with the ticket price. But for that to happen, what we do has to be explicitly legal and section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act is getting in the way. We want this law clarification to happen before someone dies.”

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.