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Free drug checking is a service which tests the safety of your recreational substances. It is available in New Zealand on a limited basis thanks to KnowYourStuffNZ, a volunteer organisation which we support and work with closely.
Drug checking is harm reduction. It arms people with knowledge about the substance they intend to consume. It allows people to make more informed and safer decisions about how they will consume a substance if at all.
The illegal market for psychoactive substances is increasingly unpredictable. There are hundreds of new psychoactive substances, often research chemicals known as ‘bathsalts’ which mimic traditional substances but can be more toxic. Many are impossible to identify by sight or smell and other means are needed to identify a substance with greater certainty. Even if people take a substance with known effects, there remains a risk that it is adulterated or cut with another substance or chemical.
Knowing what you have by visiting a drug checking service means you can plan a better, safer experience. This might include researching how much to take and knowing what to avoid such as alcohol, which mixes particularly badly with most synthetic substances.
When you bring a substance for safety checking, you will get a free one-on-one service and will witness the testing process which takes about 15 minutes. Trained volunteers will test minute amounts of the substance for you but will avoid holding your stash at any point for legal reasons.
1. A pin-head sized sample is divided into three tiny piles
2. Two piles are tested with reagents
3. One pile is tested with an FT-IR spectrometer
4. Results are discussed with tailored harm reduction advice
Drug checking allows people to make more informed decisions. At festivals last year in New Zealand, 20% of samples were not at all what people thought they had. A further 11% of samples were adulterated with other psychoactive additives.
When the substance was completely different to what was expected, 52% did not intend to take it and 11% were uncertain. When presented with additional information about the substance they had, people often made safer decisions about whether they would use it or how they would use it.
For those that intended to use a substance after discovering it was not what they expected, they often had used the substance it was previously and knew what to expect. Even for this group, they commented on being more considered and safer with the substance which included not using other drugs or alcohol at the same time.
One of the first places to offer drug checking was Austria in 1997. Led by the Medical University of Vienna, CheckIt! provided services at festivals. Using the highly advanced GCMS a sample gets given a number, is analysed by chemists and then a coloured paper has the results about 30 minutes later which everyone at the event can see. This set the basis for best practice for festival based checking. Variations on this service are available in the Netherlands (DIMS), Portugal (ChEcK!N), United Kingdom (The Loop), and Switzerland (SaferParty). These are often small services that face similar legal barriers as we face here in New Zealand. Modes of drug checking can vary:
Energy Control in Spain checks samples that people post to them. This is distinct from other services because it is not on-site and results are posted online. It allows anyone to access the service which can provide a better anonymous picture of the drug market.
The Misuse of Drug Act 1975 (MoDA) means that drug checking exists in a legal grey area.
Under Section 12 of the Act people are liable if their premises (this includes your hovercraft apparently) is knowingly used for an offence, including possession or use of a "controlled drug". This puts festival organisers at risk of prosecution because drug checking acknowledges what we all know – people use drugs at festivals. Volunteers providing the service are also at risk because even though they avoid handling substances it is unclear whether testing tiny samples amounts to possession.
Replacing MoDA with a health focused drug law could address these legal barriers. At the very least, a small amendment to the Act could protect harm reduction services from prosecution.
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