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The second to last week of February was a week of firsts. For some young people it was moving to Dunedin to study, for others it was clubs week at Otago with events to organise, promote, run and attend. For us it was the first time drug checking happened at o-week.
Drug checking in New Zealand is a harm reduction initiative where volunteers test drugs that people have already purchased and intend to use. The Drug Foundation has partnered with KnowYourStuff NZ to provide it for free at festivals down long dusty paths over the past few years. This service exists in a legal grey area, so it’s a tricky balance for event organisers. Without explicit legal protection of harm reduction or drug checking it is a grey area for clients if they fear arrest, as police can’t provide any guarantees.
Things are moving forward at pace, with Otago University Students Association deciding to offer drug checking as part of their wider harm minimisation approach for o-week. Drug checking was carried out on OUSA property on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with o-week events Wednesday night onwards.
While headlines made it seem that university officials were raining on the parade, in reality they stepped back and let the students’ association take the lead. There was no explicit consent given, but neither did they attempt to shut it down.
The leadership shown by OUSA made the event a success. Around 60 samples were tested over the four days, and around one in five substances were not as expected. That doesn’t mean people had been ripped off and sold sugar; in many cases they had something much more harmful than what they expected.
These findings are consistent with national results. Importantly, more than half of the people who had an unknown substance said they would no longer use it. Those who decided to use the substance were given information on how to be safer - what a standard dose is, what method of use is safest and how to look after themselves. Prevention effectiveness that truly leaves DARE in the dust.
Being at o-week was yet again more evidence that the sky doesn’t fall in when you acknowledge that some people will decide to use drugs. When we make information and harm reduction services readily available, people will use them – and that means more informed, often safer decisions.