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Drug testing at music festivals

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, January 7th, 2019 - 18 comments
Categories: alcohol, drugs, education, labour, law, Politics, stuart nash - Tags:

Summer is the season for music festivals, and kids doing what they have done for ever, experimenting with stuff.

Occasionally the results are catastrophic as a young person gets their life traumatically shortened either through a drug overdose or because they have tried a dodgy batch of something.

This is why the topic of allowing participants to test what drug they have in their possession has been topical and is important.

In Europe the service is regularly available.  In Portugal for instance the decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs has meant that this can be treated purely as a health issue.

In Australia there has always been this hand wringing about the issue with critics saying that it will normalise and increase drug taking amongst the poor.  But sense has prevailed and the first festival testing service has been conducted.  And the test suggests that the service provides educational as well as safety benefits.  From Claudia Long at ABC news:

Dr David Caldicott, clinical senior lecturer at the ANU Medical School and member of Calvary hospital’s emergency unit, led the pill testing team at Groovin’ the Moo after pushing for pill testing at festivals for a number of years.
 
According to Dr Caldicott, there are two things that change young people’s minds about drug taking: “The idea that what they’re taking could kill them and the idea that they’ve been ripped off.”
 
“We’re able to provide both of those messages,” he said.
 
“What we can do is we can change — and it’s quite clear that we do change — how people consume the drugs to such a way that they are unlikely to get hurt.”
 
Research from overseas similarly suggests that pill testing can change people’s decisions around drugs resulting in reduced harm to users.
 
In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had affected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.
 
Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology with Durham University who led the trials, told the ABC: “About one in five service users give us further substances of concern to throw away after hearing their test result.”
 
A 2003 German study overseen by the Bonger Institute of Criminology at the University of Amsterdam found a bad test result was more likely to result in reduced drug taking.
 
And a survey by Check !t, a pill testing service in Austria, found that about half of those who had their pills tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug if it was found to contain harmful substances.

In New Zealand Police Minister Stuart Nash was asked what he thought about a similar service being offered here.  His response was unambiguous:

Police Minister Stuart Nash wants to see all New Zealand music festivals kitted out with drug testing kits by next summer.

Nash’s comments come after illicit drugs, which contained traces of pesticide, were obtained by police in Gisborne at the Rhythm and Vine music festival earlier this week.

Nash said when it comes to the issue of drugs at music festivals, he wants to see a “more compassionate and restorative approach” when it comes to the use of drugs.

He said drug testing – whereby the chemical makeup and properties of a drug could be assessed before consumption – would be a move towards this approach.

“There are young people that go to these festivals that are taking drugs – I think if we continue to say ‘yeah, this is a bad thing,’ we’re not going to do anything to help mitigate the risk and we’re going to see people continue to end up in trouble.”

He is seeking advice on how other countries deal with the issue of drugs at festivals.

But not everyone was pleased:

Family First National Director Bob McCoskrie said the Government’s approach was “flawed and dangerous”.

“Pill testing will be seen by many younger people especially as a clear endorsement of drug use.”

He said it would send a message that illicit drugs are acceptable and can be safe and will worsen harmful drug use.

And John Roughan in the Herald expressed caution:

The philosophy behind drug testing holds that the law cannot stop people taking harmful drugs if they want to. Therefore it is more compassionate to help them minimise the harm if that is possible, and it will not be possible if the criminal law makes them afraid to seek help.

That will be true for many drug addicts but nobody knows how many have not become drug addicts because their use is a crime. We might get some indication if it ceases to be a crime.

In the meantime, the Government needs to proceed with extreme care. If taxpayers are going to provide drug-testing services at gatherings of young people, it should be done in a way that does not suggest society condones the drugs that pass. The message should be given that, legal or not, messing with mind-altering substances is sheer folly.

Russell Brown was more optimistic and had this to say after the discovery of a drug sample at Rhythm and Vines with traces of paint and pesticides present:

[Drug testing at festivals] looks like it’s coming. We seem to have reached a point where politicians, police and health agencies are on board with realistic harm reduction strategies. A point where, however flawed, an alert has been issued to people who may consume something very harmful.

What needs to happen next is to allow this to be done properly. As Dr Jez Weston of Know Your Stuff wrote in a series for SciBlogs last year, the psychology of drug-checking is just as important as the technology.

“Trust is critical for people in possession of illegal substances to bring them to us for testing. It helps that we’re not the authorities. We are a grass-roots organisation and many of our volunteers have attended, assisted, or organised festivals for more than a decade. Being members of the community we serve nurtures a higher level of trust, in what can be a very exposing situation for our clients,” Dr Weston said.

“We are going out of our way to provide a free service for our clients, so in a sense, it’s a gift from us to them. This sets up a mutual obligation. We’ve provided our clients with a service that they value; it’s now up to them to reciprocate by providing us with something that we value, namely making safer choices about their drug use.”

This kind of harm reduction, the kind that works, is about more than fancy machines. Dr Weston concludes: “The majority of drug users we see are not addicts or drug abusers. They are adults who want to have a good time, are willing to take on a small amount of risk to do this, and are keen to reduce that risk.

I hope the Government heeds the call for an urgent law change so that testing services can be the norm.  And that it is part of an overall process to decriminalise possession of drugs.  The overseas experience suggests that contrary to predictions of doom and gloom young people will not increase their use.

Who would have thought that a nanny state approach to the possession of drugs would have caused more harm than good and that trusting young people, giving them proper information, and making sure that they were not taking substances that contained poisons would have such a positive result?

Good on Nash for being unequivocal on this issue.  I trust that he will follow this through with the necessary law change to make testing regimes the norm.

18 comments on “Drug testing at music festivals”

  1. Chris T 1

    I don’t particular have any strong feelings either way with this, except it again highlights the mixed messages this government is sending out on drugs.

    Can’t do any harm and if it saves some grief or a few lives then that is a good thing.

    But I think the on the spot testing is pretty limited on what it can actually test for, so I would hope they stress this to the people at the time.

    The one thing I would do is if the drugs are found to be dodgy, is destroy them on the spot rather than letting the people just wander off with them.

    It isn’t that I don’t believe people should have the right to take them anyway. It is that the cynic in me is worried a few might off-sell them or give them away without telling people.

    • JanM 1.1

      I don’t think they’re sending ‘mixed messages’ so much as feeling their way in a country that has a strong seam of deeply conservative and judgemental thinking. That ‘mixed messages’ stuff is just a way of attacking the government rather than being a useful opinion.
      No government can really afford to move too far ahead of public opinion – it is better to shift ideas until a reasonable consensus has been reached, otherwise the outrage and uproar all but defeats the purpose, and risks electoral defeat.

      • Chris T 1.1.1

        Ya think

        We’re going to keep putting ciggies up to stupid money that mainly affects poor people and make the country smoke free as it is so harmful.
        We want to make it easier to smoke weed.

        We encourage police to seek help for users of all drugs rather than enforce the law.
        We want to go mega hard on synth drugs.

        We think young people taking drugs can severely badly affect their developing brains.
        We think we should let kids rock up with drugs and we can test them for them

        etc etc etc

        • JanM 1.1.1.1

          “Ya think”
          Yes thanks, Chris T, I like to believe I think rather than just react negatively

    • SHG 1.2

      No, the current government’s policies are quite easily understandable. If you are a middle-class pakeha, the government wants to help. If you’re poor and brown, bend over.

  2. The Chairman 2

    Not only should drug testing be available at festivals, it should be extended out to towns nationwide and available all year round if we genuinely want to reduce drug harm.

    • JanM 2.1

      Good idea, actually – if testing was easily available it would probably help enormously to cut back the manufacture and sale of the ‘dodgy stuff’ because the ratbags selling it would be too easily found out by the purchasers

    • Chris T 2.2

      That is the other thing.

      While it is probably a good idea, it is only helping some well off kids who can actually afford to spend hundreds of bucks going to music festivals.

      All the rest of the poor kids just get what they are given.

      • The Chairman 2.2.1

        That’s another reason for extending it out to the wider society. The consumption of drugs doesn’t only happen at festivals.

  3. JohnSelway 3

    I went to ADE last year at the Gashouder and you can get testing done + they allow you to have up 6 tablets of ecstasy on you. Given the size of the event it has very issues

  4. Ad 4

    Mickey this needs broadening out a bit.

    Safe and random drug testing will need to be applied to every person of every workforce – much broader than forestry and construction. Politicians to Policemen to judges to pilots to security guards. And every driver of any moving vehicle.

    Recreational drugs are going to become much easier to access and there will be almost no cultural stigna to limit it.

    The consequences we are going to see won’t be limited to a few kids at a dance, and nor should our regulatory response.

  5. Cinny 5

    I’ve been waiting for a thread on this topic, as I’ve plenty to say on said topic.

    Dodgy pills…… man I wish the youth would wise up a bit, sheez just check ‘the pill report’ online and find out what is crap before you purchase. It’s been around well over a decade, you can also get your own kit and test your own pills. Link…..

    https://www.ecstasydata.org/

    For years and years I would go to The Gathering for NY’s. Three day festival, NO ALCOHOL… yes that’s right no booze. As a result, no violence no drama, thousands of people. Most would be on LSD or MDMA, festival goers were issued safe drug taking info, there was first aid where people were specifically trained re drug use. The vibe was second to none, amazing what the lack of alcohol does.

    Also at said festival they would employ people to look like festival goers just to keep an eye on people and make sure everyone was safe, no police needed at all. And say if someone was getting hassled they would step in, if someone was selling dodgy pills, they would be found and kicked out.

    Free drug testing should be available.

    Wake up NZ people would rather get high than drunk at a festival, and there will always be some dodgy buggers that will take advantage of that. Some will press crap rubbish pills just to make a $ and to hell with everyone. See, greed comes in all forms. Another example is the greed of organisers wanting to make $$$$$$ by serving booze, worries about all shit that comes from it (punch up’s etc etc).

    I was thrilled with what Nash had to say about it a few weeks back, good on him.

    Family first…. sheez people do take recreational drugs, they can bury their heads in the sand about it or work with it. Educate the people.

    I know plenty of people who would rather take LSD for a night out than drink booze, festival or no festival.

  6. Cinny 6

    Here’s a link for an excellent article on said topic….

    “On-Site Drug Checking: Reagents, Methods, Harm Reduction, and Politics”

    https://www.erowid.org/columns/crew/2017/02/on-site-drug-checking/

  7. JanM 7

    I can see the point, Cinny, and the sort of person, like me, who just likes a few wines, rather than ‘booze’ would probably not go to a festival like that any more.

  8. fender 8

    Great idea, get on with it!

    Better still, supply government guaranteed authentic drugs for users so there can be no dispute or danger over contents.

  9. Stephen Bradley 9

    Following on from the recent legalisation of non-medical cannabis by the federal government of Canada, I see that cannabis retailing in the province of British Columbia is going to be another line of business largely under the control of the BC government.

    BC Liquor Stores are a chain of crown corporation retail outlets operated by the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch to distribute alcoholic beverages in the province. They are accountable to the Attorney General of British Columbia. They have been in operation for almost 100 years.

    The BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) has also now become the sole, wholesale distributor of non-medical cannabis for the province. LDB will operate standalone, public retail stores and is the only entity to provide online sales, via its online BC Cannabis Store.

    How sensible and practical is that?

    Relative to the current discussion, one can envisage an outreach programme whereby the LDB could provide mobile supply caravans to musical events. A bit like Mr Whippy!
    Only under public ownership and oversight.

    • Ad 9.1

      That Canadian and Scandinavian model would be so bold. Heads would explode of course at the state monopoly since state regulation of alcohol was defeated years ago by supermerket owners and beer barons.

      Still, I like the regulated dispensary conept myself for marijuana.

      Even better if it were only sold as a full Pharmac-regulated and subsidised medicine, rather than as merely an abity to legally possess.

      Bring on proper testing and state regulation!

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