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New Zealand: Government Indicates that “Drug Checking” Law Will Be Made Permanent

(Apr. 14, 2021) On April 9, 2021, New Zealand’s health minister, Andrew Little, stated in a press release that interim legislation set to expire in December 2021 that enables illegal substances to be tested to verify their contents would be made permanent through legislation passed during this year.

The Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2020 was passed in December 2020, at the start of New Zealand’s summer. The act amended the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 to allow “voluntary organisations like KnowYourStuff to test drugs at events like music festivals to verify they are what people think they are, without running foul of the law.” Such testing was previously available at festivals in recent years, but there was no legal framework for it, meaning that the services were effectively operating illegally. Although there had been no prosecutions, festival hosts were “technically liable for prosecution if they knowingly provide[d] a venue for illicit drug use.” This had reportedly “kept pill testing from becoming widespread because of the legal risk.”

When the legislation was passed, Little stated that “[i]n the new year the Government will develop and consult on regulations so that by this time next year, a full system will be in place to regulate drug checking service over the long term.” He explained that

[t]he Bill will enable the Director-General of Health to appoint a drug checking service by way of notice in the Gazette. Appointed services will be able to receive controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances for testing or destruction, or to pass on to Police for destruction or an approved laboratory for further testing.

The Bill does not change the legal status of any drugs or other substances. It will still be a crime for members of the public to possess illegal drugs and to supply them to others.

The Ministry of Health states that “[d]rug checking services conduct scientific tests on substances in order to indicate their likely identity and composition. Services test unknown substances (which may be illicit drugs), interpret results, and provide harm reduction information to a person who provides a sample.” KnowYourStuff is the only provider appointed under the new law to date.

The Ministry of Health commissioned research by Victoria University of Wellington regarding the impact of drug checking. A final report was published in February 2021 and found that,

[o]f the survey participants that have used KYSNZ [KnowYourStuffNZ] drug checking services (n=155), 68% reported that they had changed their behaviour after using the service, with 87% of those that used KYSNZ reporting that their knowledge of harm reduction had improved. 53% reported it had improved a lot and 34% reported that it had improved a little. Survey participants demonstrated that regardless of whether their drug taking behaviour changed or not, behaviour change in terms of harm reduction practices often occurred. This is also consistent with the findings of international research[.]

Furthermore, the report concluded that

[t]here is no evidence that drug checking increases drug use or encourages those who do not use illegal drugs to begin using them. The face-to-face harm reduction interventions utilised by KYSNZ were highly valued and this mirrors international research – that drug checking is about more than just the test itself. Behaviour change ‘success’ should not therefore be measured only in terms of drug disposals as the wrap around discussion about harm reduction is also of crucial importance.

Little also stated that “[t]esting as a result of the new law has revealed that large quantities of drugs being sold as MDMA, or ecstasy, is actually synthetic cathinones, a dangerous drug known also [ ] as bath salts linked to deaths overseas and hospitalisations in New Zealand.”

Following Little’s announcement, the director of KnowYourStuff said that “now [that] the government has recognised the value of harm reduction in making the law change permanent, the service needs funding to meet the hugely increased demand.” The organization currently operates using volunteers and is mostly funded by donations.