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Summer festival drug testing finds risky new drugs

KnowYourStuffNZ summer festival drug testing finds risky new drugs

In a summer that saw New Zealand’s first mass hospitalisation at a dance party due to fake MDMA, testing by KnowYourStuffNZ has identified more new psychoactive substances than ever before.

During the summer season, KnowYourStuffNZ in partnership with NZ Drug Foundation used spectroscopy and reagents at seven festivals to test 445 samples of illicit drugs brought in voluntarily by users, an increase of over 100 since last year. They found that the overall percentage of samples ‘as presumed’ increased from 68% to 79%, driven largely by an increase in the quantity of genuine MDMA alongside a higher proportion of MDMA among the samples tested.

KnowYourStuffNZ Director Wendy Allison said that this season nearly 60% of samples brought in for testing were presumed to be MDMA, up from just over 50% last season. Of these, the percentage that were actually MDMA increased from 63% to 83%.

“We have seen more MDMA, and more of it has been real,” said Allison. However she cautions not to assume the market is safer than last year. “We have also seen pills containing very high doses of MDMA, n-ethylpentylone sold as MDMA, and several new substances – a few of which we couldn’t identify. These all have the potential to be very dangerous.”

KnowYourStuffNZ identified 44 different psychoactive substances in samples this season, 12 of which were cathinones (“bath salts”). 40% of samples that were not as presumed were cathinones – and one third of those were n-ethylpentylone. In 9 cases, cathinones and other substances were found mixed in with MDMA.

KnowYourStuffNZ issued an alert about n-ethylpentylone in February, a week prior to the hospitalisation of 13 people who inadvertently took the drug at an event in Christchurch. “This season, KnowYourStuffNZ’s testing prevented several other groups from taking n-ethylpentylone that they thought was MDMA,” said Allison. “The Christchurch hospitalisations may have been prevented if those people had access to drug checking.”

“These results strengthen the case for essential drug checking services to be provided at more festivals, events and clubs, and highlight the urgent need for the government to establish its Early Warning System for drugs and to incorporate drug checking services into that system,” says Ross Bell, Executive Director, NZ Drug Foundation.

The good news is that when a sample was not as presumed, 58% of clients then said they would not take it – a result consistent with previous years. “When you give people accurate information about drugs, they make better choices.” said Allison. “And for a lot of people, drug checking is the first time they have had access to comprehensive and factual information.” This year 70% of KnowYourStuffNZ’s clients said that using the service is the first time they have talked to a drug-related health service about their drug use.

Drug checking is gaining support overseas, with Australia’s ACT government planning to expand pill testing at events after a successful trial in May, and the UK Home Office last week stating that drug checking services are legal and it will not stand in the way of initiatives there.

Allison believes it’s time the New Zealand government acted to support drug checking here. “We have been doing this for four years with consistently good results, yet Australia is a long way ahead in terms of official support and taking action on needed law changes. They are putting us to shame.”


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