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Demand for drug checking doubles, harm reduction catches on

Testing by KnowYourStuffNZ at music festivals this summer reveals that more people than ever before are choosing not to take dangerous drugs. When people discovered that their drugs were not what they were expected, 62% of them were willing not to take them.

The testing, carried out by KnowYourStuffNZ in partnership with NZ Drug Foundation, took place at thirteen festivals. Samples were brought in voluntarily by users and tested for content using chemical reagents and FTIR spectroscopy. 805 samples were tested, almost doubling the number of tests from last year. Of those samples, 87% tested as containing the substances that were expected.

MDMA was again the most popular substance, with both more samples of the drug being presented for testing and a higher percentage of the samples confirmed as containing MDMA. This summer, 90% of samples presumed to be MDMA actually contained MDMA.

Wendy Allison, Managing Director of KnowYourStuffNZ, said this was to be expected and that a similar trend had been observed by other data collection agencies. “From a harm reduction perspective, it means that the risk of harm from inadvertently ingesting unknown substances is reduced,” she said. “However users should be cautious, as there are pills out there that contain some very high doses.”

Over thirty brightly coloured ‘high-dose’ pills with a variety of shapes and logos were found, some containing up to 300mg of MDMA. “This is a continuation and expansion of what we saw last year,” says Allison. “300mg is around three times the ‘normal’ dose of MDMA - if someone took that without knowing, they could be at serious risk of harm.” KnowYourStuffNZ released a warning about high-dose MDMA pills in March.

In previous years a range of substitutions were seen when samples were not MDMA, but this summer n-ethylpentylone, a potentially dangerous cathinone, has become the main substitute. n-ethylpentylone is a stimulant that causes anxiety, insomnia, racing heart, and high blood pressure, and has been responsible for a number of hospitalisations in New Zealand in the last 2 years. It was found at almost all events attended by KnowYourStuffNZ in the 2018/2019 festival season. Several samples of caffeine being sold as MDMA were also found.

New drugs also continued to appear. Of particular concern was eutylone, a cathinone that has been reported by users as being responsible for several hospitalisations. An alert was issued by KnowYourStuffNZ in April after eutylone was detected at events from the upper North Island to lower South Island.

This year, clients were surveyed to find out more about who uses drug checking services. Most clients are young, but many older people are also using the service. Half of the respondents were under 25, half over 25, and one in 20 were 45 or older. Most people had had no experience with drug checking or harm reduction services prior to seeing KnowYourStuffNZ.

The survey findings also suggested that people are aware that taking drugs is risky, but without harm reduction advice they are less aware that it's possible to mitigate those risks. 87% of clients who had used KnowYourStuffNZ’s services before said that their approach to taking drugs had changed as a result of the advice they had received.

KnowYourStuffNZ’s data shows that most people will make safer choices if they have access to factual information that allows them to assess the risks more accurately, with 62% of people stating that they did not intend to consume their substance after it tested to be something unexpected.

Three-quarters of respondents had previously experienced taking drugs that were not what they were supposed to be. “They reported effects ranging from ‘unpleasant’ to more serious situations needing medical help,” says Allison. “We knew that it would be a significant number, but 75% is worrying. To reduce this risk is the reason KnowYourStuffNZ exists.”

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