Aotearoa New Zealand is the first country in the world to have explicitly legal drug checking.
Drug checking is a proven, effective harm reduction tool that saves lives, by providing people with accurate information to make safer decisions. The Drug Foundation is keen to see it expanded to more communities across Aotearoa, including communities working with people who use injected drugs and people who are homeless.
Drug checking services are offered in a few other countries like Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, Switzerland and Spain. However, they all still operate in a legal grey area, in that they’re not explicitly illegal - but they're not legal either.
Drug checking is a free service which tests the safety of recreational drugs. KnowYourStuffNZ, the Drug Foundation, the Needle Exchange and ESR are NZ's legal drug checking service providers. ESR also provides technical oversight.
Find your nearest drug checking clinic with this calendar on The Level. These clinics are free, legal and discreet.
If you can't make it to a clinic, you can check your drugs at home using a reagent test.
Drug checking identifies if a substance has been adultered, and provides information on the substances found. This can reduce physical, mental and emotional harm someone might experience if they use a substance that isn’t what they expect .
Knowing what you have by visiting a drug checking service means you can plan a better, safer experience. This could include researching how much to take and knowing what to avoid after taking a substance, like medications or alcohol (which mixes particularly badly with most synthetic substances).
The illegal market for psychoactive substances is increasingly unpredictable. There are hundreds of new psychoactive substances, which can be harmful, especially if you don't know which substance you have. Many are impossible to identify by sight or smell. Even if you take a substance knowing what it is and the effects, there remains the risk of it being adulterated or cut with another substance. Knowing and understanding the risks is only possible when you know which drug you are taking.
See also: Synthetics crisis
When you arrive, a trained staff member will greet you and and ask what you have brought in to test. They will ask if you have ever had an unexpected experience with this drug, but answering is optional, and any information shared will be kept confidential.
1. The drug checker takes a minute sample of the substance – roughly 10mg, about a match head. Any pills are documented for size, shape and colour, so if it turns out to be something unexpected, others can be warned. If it's a tab, a small wedge will be cut out - usually less than a quarter.
You will be given a ticket, so you can choose to wait for the results, or leave and come back later.
There are two main testing processes:
Drug checkers record the results from both reagent testing and the spectrometer.
3.) Results are discussed and you will be offered personalised harm reduction advice. All staff are trained to have friendly, non-judgemental conversations about drug use. They will ask whether you intend to take the substance once you know what it is, but this is anonymous record-keeping to help us understand the impact of the service.
Sometimes we may ask to send the substance away for further testing with ESR.
Drug checking allows people to make informed decisions. Over the years we have found that when people are told their drug of choice is either not what they thought it was, or contains something else, more than half say they won't take it.
For example, in the summer of 2020/2021, 31% of MDMA checked turned out to be cathinones ('bath salts'). Overall, 25% of samples were not what people expected, and a further 4% were adulterated with some other substance.
When their substance was not what they expected, 52% said they would not take it. Those who still chose to take the substance often decided to use it more safely - for example, by not mixing it with other drugs or alcohol.
One of the first places to offer drug checking was Austria in 1997. Led by the Medical University of Vienna, CheckIt! provide services at festivals. Using a highly advanced GCMS, samples are numbered, analysed by chemists and then the results are displayed 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) to name a few. Modes of drug checking can vary:
Energy Control in Spain checks samples received by post. 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 may provide a better picture of the drug market.
Drug checking is one hundred percent legal in Aotearoa NZ. It used to operate in a legal grey area, but in 2020 there was a temporary law change, allowing drug checking services to operate over the summer. In 2021 the temporary change was made permanent, legalising the entire process.
That means you can legally hand a substance to a volunteer or staff member, and it can legally be handed back again.
It’s no longer an offence to have drug checking facilities at an event, which means that event organisers can book licensed organisations like the Drug Foundation or KnowYourStuffNZ alongside medics as part of their health and safety measures. They can also publicise the service, so people know where to go and when.
Student's Associations are now running drug checking services at events like Orientation week, to keep students safer.
If a dangerous substance is found, event organisers can be informed and the public warned via High Alert.
For more information, see KnowYourStuffNZ
Or you can read the full Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2021 at the New Zealand Legislation website.
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