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Testing Times Why won't Winston Peters throw his complete support behind drug testing at music festivals?

By Steven Walton | METRONEWS Reporter

The Government could be assisting a murder if it allowed drug testing at festivals, Winston Peters says.

Peters made the claim in an exclusive interview with METRONEWS about drug testing at festivals.

His stance is that drug testing reaches the problem too late, and the Government instead needs to address how young people acquire the "dangerous product".

A key concern for Peters is how drug testing can allow a potentially life-threatening substance to stay in the hands of a young person, even after it's been tested.

"[If] that student or that young person walks off and sells an already-notified dangerous product, how then is the state not guilty of helping or assisting or abetting ... murder?"

A day after that interview, NZ First party members voted to review their stance against drug checking after Young NZ First members contested it.

NZ First MPs Tracey Martin, Jenny Marcroft and Shane Jones voted in favor of the motion, with Darroch Ball, Clayton Mitchell and Mark Patterson against it. Peters did not partake in the vote.

Young NZ First's stance in favor of drug testing is shared by drug policy experts, South Island university students, other political parties, and, according to a 1News-Colmar Brunton poll, most New Zealanders.

Former Young NZ First President and current member Rob Gore questioned his party's senior MPs: "Do you want that person to take that substance, go into that music festival with absolutely no safeguards, no one to talk to, no one to turn to, or put them-self in the position where they end up in the gutter dead?"

"If I make that choice, do I not deserve a second chance?" Gore pleaded.
Students at the 2019 University of Canterbury Students' Association 'Tea Party', an annual end-of-year festival event.

'DIFFERENT DECISIONS'

Drug policy researchers from New Zealand and Australia say it's time to accept that young people take illicit drugs. Testing the drugs reduces harm, they say.

Drug testing in New Zealand operates in a legal grey area. Festival organisers are prohibited by the Misuse of Drugs Act to knowingly provide a venue with illicit drugs.

"I would certainly like to see more availability of a drug checking service for certainly our festival-goers, wherever they be located," Dr Monica Barratt, a social scientist at Australia's National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, says.

She believes a drug testing service will allow people to better understand what's on the illicit market, in case there are sudden changes. "We don't know what that [change is] going to be this next summer," she says.

A recent study from Australia's National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre surveyed festival attendees and shows MDMA was the most popular illicit substance. Note: the study mostly surveyed people who used drugs.

Dr Barratt co-authored a study earlier this year showing MDMA is the most popular illicit substance for festival-goers in Australia. "It has a long history of use in that [festival] context," she says.

The study also shows 2.5 percent of festival-goers who take MDMA seek emergency medical treatment.

MDMA, also known as ecstasy, has a "high risk" Class B classification, according to the New Zealand Police.

During last year's festival season in Australia, six people, all aged between 18 and 23, died after reportedly taking MDMA, which is now the subject of an ongoing coronial inquest in New South Wales.

Dr Barratt says it cannot be categorically proven that drug testing could have saved the lives of those six people, but with it in place, "they would've had a chance to make different decisions".

Dr Barratt wants drug testing available at festivals.

Dr Nicole Lee, a member of an alcohol and drug council advising the Australian Health Minister, shares that view. She submitted a written statement in support of drug testing to the New South Wales coronial inquest.

"It is my opinion that pill testing would reduce the number of drug-related deaths occurring at music festivals", she writes.

Dr Lee says high purity is one of the main causes of fatal and non-fatal MDMA overdoses. This is something she's seen in Australia, the UK, and New Zealand.

Data published by Know Your Stuff NZ, an organisation that offers free drug testing at some New Zealand festivals, supports Dr Lee's claim.

A temporary drug testing station, provided by Know Your Stuff NZ, set up for an event hosted by the Lincoln University Students' Association. The blue poster on the left indicates what color a substance will turn when mixed with a reagent, while, to the right, a spectrometer sits hooked up to a laptop.

During the summer of 2018 and 2019, the volunteer organisation detected "dangerous high dose" MDMA pills up to four times stronger than regular MDMA.

Dr Lee also notes MDMA manufacturers make the substance in "backyard labs" and thus consumers don't always know what they're getting. "They may be getting MDMA, but they may be getting a whole bunch of other, more dangerous drugs as well," she says.

Christchurch witnessed this in 2018 when 13 people were hospitalised after taking what they thought was MDMA at the Electric Avenue music festival. Police later confirmed they'd taken a drug three times more potent than MDMA.

Dr Barratt, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, agrees the main risks of the unregulated market is not knowing what the drug actually is or how strong it is.

Dr Fiona Hutton researches drug use, drug law reform, drug policy, alcohol and other drug use at Victoria University in Wellington.

Victoria University drug policy and drug use researcher Dr Fiona Hutton says drug testing is one way to combat the uncertainty in the illicit market.

"People don't know what they're taking, they don't know what's in it, they don't know how strong it is, they have no idea," she says

Dr Hutton, Dr Lee and Dr Barratt all backed the wider implementation of drug testing.

University of Canterbury Students' Association President Sam Brosnahan hopes to have drug testing at Canterbury's major student events by 2020.

'STUDENTS DO CHOOSE TO CONSUME THEM'

University student associations across the South Island are endorsing drug testing too. It will be available at major Otago University and Lincoln University events this year, while Canterbury plans to introduce it in 2020.

University of Canterbury Students' Association (UCSA) President Sam Brosnahan believes illicit drug taking has become normalised at the university.

"We know drugs are illegal and we don't condone the taking of drugs, but we do recognise a lot of students do choose to consume them," he says.

The UCSA is aiming to introduce drug testing for Orientation Week in 2020, at the end of February. Brosnahan says the aim thereafter is to have testing at "major festival events", such as the end-of-year 'Tea Party'.

UCSA President, Sam Brosnahan.
"From our point of view, rather than taking like a legalistic approach, we want to take a health-based approach."

Brosnahan adds that students have demanded drug testing.

An anonymous online survey conducted in August by Canterbury's student magazine, Canta, shows 55.4 percent of 316 respondents feel the UCSA isn't doing enough to help those using illegal drugs.

One respondent writes: "Need drug testing at O Week events; people are gonna do it, might as well make it safe."

This survey by the University of Canterbury student magazine shows students want more support from their student body when they take illicit drugs.

Of the 289 respondents, who answered a question about what drugs they had consumed, 67.5 percent said they'd taken MDMA.

Fifth-year chemical engineering student Nick Kennedy ran for the 2020 UCSA presidency earlier this year on the policy of introducing Know Your Stuff's drug testing services in 2020.

"My idea was, if we can stop one person going into hospital by doing this, that’s 100 percent worth it," he says.

"This is about our students' well-being and our students' safety. Trying to take the moral high ground over that, that’s probably just naive and dangerous really," he adds.

Stephen Pitts, a third-year mechatronics student, started a drug harm reduction club in Canterbury at the start of 2019 after seeing a friend getting drugs tested at a festival.

Left: Nick Kennedy, fifth-year engineering student. Right: Stephen Pitts, President of SAFE club.

His club, which has 87 official members, offers advice cards courtesy of the NZ Drug Foundation and wants to introduce a safe space at student events in the future.

"The university needs to be doing something before someone overdoses," he says.

Pitts believes students "100 percent" want drug testing and he hasn't received any negative feedback about the club's creation. People against substance use "didn't have anything bad to say", he says.

The University of Canterbury declined to comment.

Last week, the Lincoln University Students' Association (LUSA) provided drug testing for an annual end of lectures party. "Simply asking people to say no, and not use drugs is not effective," LUSA General Manager Fiona Kay says, in a statement.

In February this year, Otago University Students' Association became the first University in New Zealand to provide drug testing during Orientation Week.

NZ First leader Winston Peters speaks at his party's national conference, held in Christchurch in October. During the conference, the party voted to review its stance on drug testing.

'COME HOME SAFELY'

Legalising drug testing in New Zealand almost derailed when NZ First refused to back it without more information.

But, Young NZ First's successful motion at a recent national party conference means NZ First MPs will re-evaluate whether they'll support the implementation of drug testing at music festivals.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Police Minister Stuart Nash and the Green Party's Chlöe Swarbrick are all pledging support to change the Misuse of Drug Act, which will stop drug checking working in a legal grey area.

Swarbrick, Green's spokesperson for drug law reform, says she's campaigning for drug checking after "looking overseas and hearing the headlines" about people who lost their lives to drug use.

She tries to think about the issue from the view of a parent, who might give their child the best advice and wisdom, "but, if they do do something silly, you want them to come home safely."

Top: Young NZ First Chairman William Woodward, who introduced the motion to have the party re-evaluate its position on drug testing. Bottom-left: NZ First law spokesman, Darroch Ball, who says drug testing is a complex issue. Bottom-right: NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft spoke in favor of re-evaluating drug testing and described it as a "safety net".

The Green Party has a petition on their website with over 6,000 signatures to legalise drug checking services. Meanwhile, NZ First was using an online survey to get feedback about drug checking.

"We've still got some very serious concerns about [drug checking]," NZ First's Law spokesperson Darroch Ball says in a recent interview, the day before his party voted to review its position.

When asked what his concerns are, Ball explains a majority of people still take pills when they are found to be partially or not as presumed.

Know Your Stuff NZ results show 60.2 percent of people might or will take a substance even when it is slightly or completely different to what they thought. However, a majority of people won't take a substance if it is completely different to what they thought.

This graph, using data from last year's festival season, shows a majority of people might or will take a substance, even when testing results show it's partially or completely different to what they thought it was.

Ball says recreational drug use isn't a health issue like other drugs because "it's a conscious decision that they're willing to take that risk for a good time".

He thinks drug taking is "tantamount to drink driving", because people know the risks and make the choice.

"We don't have sympathy for drink drivers do we?"

He also claims drug testing normalises illegal drug use, something which isn't supported by two separate studies conducted in 2002 and 2011.

Despite his reluctance to support drug testing, Ball insists it's an "ongoing active issue" and he welcomes Young NZ First's views. He will continue to converse with Police Minister Stuart Nash to find a solution.

When the party debated with its youth wing, Ball, alongside MPs Clayton Mitchell and Mark Patterson, continued to speak against drug testing. The final vote was very close, but exact numbers are inconclusive, as voting was by voice, and then by show of hands.

Winston Peters addresses media after delivering a public speech at the party's annual conference in Christchurch.

Winston Peters, who allowed Young NZ First members to debate the issue, says "we're a better party for it".

"If you listen to the people, and they have a vote, it suggests you're gonna go with their majority decision, and so we're going to go from there," Peters proclaims to media after the vote.

He hopes a final decision will be made within two weeks.

"We've got a major problem, we've got people taking illegal drugs and we're trying to keep them alive," Peters says.

CREDITS

Written, photographed, and produced by Steven Walton.

Photo of Fiona Hutton was supplied.

With special thanks to the New Zealand Broadcasting School, Daniel Nielsen, Vicki Wilkinson-Baker, Ross Patterson, and Paul Newell.

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