Drug testing: find out what's in them
A glimpse into the world of harm reduction and illegal-drug checking clinics.
Anywhere from 20 to 30% of the drugs that we test aren’t what they’re presumed to be.
Drug checking clinics are now legal and free to use, thanks to recent law changes. However, illegal drugs are still, well ... illegal.
As an organisation, Consumer NZ doesn’t endorse the use of illegal drugs. But if there’s one thing we do like to promote, it’s scientific testing and making informed decisions. When people have knowledge, they can make better decisions.
In the three months from April to June 2022, the Police’s wastewater testing estimated that as a nation, we consumed more than 8.5kg of MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly) a week. That’s about 85,000 doses.
But because drugs such as MDMA are illegal, there’s no way of guaranteeing that other, more harmful substances haven’t been added.
In 2022, an amendment was made to the Misuse Of Drugs (Drug And Substance Checking Service Providers) Regulations to allow people to have their drugs tested by licensed providers. This enables them to discover the likely content of their powder or pill, and be informed of the potential harm.
What if you shoot your shot, and miss?
In the latest episode of our Consume This podcast, our producers met with James, 21, a casual drug user. He’s been using drugs intermittently over the past two years, after being introduced to them at house parties.
“I always try to make sure I know what I’m doing before partaking,” said James.
Some of his friends have overdosed on substances before, ending up in hospital.
“They say, ‘oh yeah, we’ve got ecstasy’ and it’s not ecstasy.”
In June, 12 people aged between 31 and 71 were hospitalised in Wairarapa after taking a white powder sold as both cocaine and meth. It turned out to contain fentanyl, a potent drug which is active in much smaller doses. This means it’s easy to take too much, especially if you don’t know it’s there.
Naloxone, a life-saving opioid overdose reversal treatment, isn’t widely available in New Zealand. At the time of the fentanyl hospitalisations in June, the NZ Drug Foundation described it as “literally nothing short of a miracle that there have been no fatalities in the Wairarapa outbreak”.
James might know his dealer, but he doesn’t know his dealer’s dealer – or any other links in the chain that will likely stretch back to a clandestine lab overseas.
What do the changes mean?
Parliament amended the Misuse Of Drugs Regulations in May 2022 to make it lawful to operate and attend free drug testing clinics in Aotearoa – a world first. You can take a sample, get it tested and find out for sure what it is.
The trained volunteers who run the clinics also provide you with information to understand the risks surrounding your specific drug and any other ingredients it contains.
Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has been a prominent voice pushing for the regulation amendment.
“The reality is that we have unknown people in unknown places consuming unknown substances to unknown effect,” she said in an address to Parliament, when the amendment was being debated.
“The very least that you can do is inform people about what they’re doing, and the evidence shows us that people make better decisions when they have that information.”
There are currently four licensed testing providers. Between them they run regular sessions around the country and pop up at various festivals and events. They are the Drug Foundation, ESR, The Needle Exchange and Know Your Stuff.
Services need a licence to operate from the Director General of Health, and there are stringent requirements – for example, sufficient training, detailed record keeping and rigorous processes for the handling and disposal of samples.
James is studious about checking any drug before he takes it. He has used Know Your Stuff’s services roughly four or five times over the past six months, “just to double-check”.
“It’s promoted at a lot of music festivals,” he said. “They normally have a little tent, kind of like a Covid testing station.”
Know Your Stuff started in 2015 and is the pioneer of independent consumer drug testing in Aotearoa.
“We want to empower people to make safe choices,” said Casey Spearin, Know Your Stuff’s Wellington regional manager. “So, we offer people knowledge and information that they can use to protect themselves if they choose to take drugs.”
Know Your Stuff would normally expect 15 to 20 people at a midweek session in the office and a few hundred at a festival. Spearin has run dozens of clinics.
“There isn’t one specific kind of person who comes. It’s people of all ages and genders, and you really couldn’t predict who walks through that door next.
“We find that anywhere from 20 to 30% of the drugs that we test aren’t what they’re presumed to be,” Spearin said.
“Research shows that around 60% of people won’t take a substance if the testing comes back as something they weren’t expecting.”
James hasn’t increased his drug taking since being able to get his stuff tested. However, the legislation has enabled him to make safer decisions about the substances he was already planning to take.
If the results were ever to come back that the drug was more dangerous than what he thought it was, James said he’d just chuck it in the bin. This has happened once before, with what he thought was MDMA coming back as ‘bath salts’ or synthetic cathinones.
As a consumer of an illegal and unregulated product, you can’t exactly go back to where you bought it from and demand a refund.
“I might just give them [his dealer] a heads-up just so they know, at least,” James said.
A 2021 survey looked at the behaviours of people who used the Know Your Stuff service. It found that people who get their drugs checked are less likely to mix substances, which is a big source of harm. They’re more likely to test again in the future, and they’re more likely to take smaller amounts of the substance.
“Offering people information often leads to behaviour change,” Spearin said. “Not all the time, but we do see that in our work.”
Naomi Tuaopepe is one of the directors of Soundsplash, an annual music festival in Raglan. Since having Know Your Stuff on site, she’s noticed a decrease in drug-related incidents.
“The biggest thing is the education ... Their support at events for attendees is awesome,” she said.
“Attendees are grateful to have them there because they feel that they can approach them easily. They might not have that avenue to be able to get that knowledge in other areas of their life.”
Soundsplash is conscious of having a wraparound welfare service.
“The attendees are talking and asking the difficult questions that sometimes they are too afraid to ask, or they’ll just do it possibly. But at least those services are there for them if they want to ask.”
Shades of grey
Before the legislation change, Spearin said Know Your Stuff was operating in a grey area of the law.
“It was kind of underneath a table at the back of a dance floor. People could bring their drugs to us and we would tell them what was in it. And over the years, it has grown. And now we also offer clinics in major cities across the country ... It was the relationships that we had with people such as the Police and medics that allowed us to operate because they could see the benefits that we were offering.”
Parliament initially voted the bill through as a one-year trial in December 2020. In November 2021 it became permanent and finally came into force in May 2022.
Before the trial and legislation change, testing volunteers weren’t allowed to touch anything. This meant that when a client came by, the client would have to handle the substance and machinery themselves with the volunteers verbally guiding them. This made the testing process take a lot longer.
It meant that if you were at a festival, you had to wait in line and be there to do the testing yourself. This could mean hours standing in line in the hot sun when you’d rather have been making the most of the festival.
“Being allowed to handle it means that someone can come drop the substance off,” Spearin said. “We’ll take it away, test it and then they can come back later and get the results, which means that we can put many, many more samples through in the same amount of time.”
Also before the legislation change, if James handed a sample to a Know Your Stuff volunteer, he would technically be committing a crime: supplying a controlled drug. But that was really designed to criminalise dealers, not people seeking health advice.
When they do find anything of serious concern, there is an alert network set up to share that information with the Drug Foundation, High Alert, and a few others all working together to get the information out there.
The drug testing service is not offered to dealers and they don’t allow anyone to take photos of results. Despite this, Spearin has seen some dealers online claiming their product has been checked by Know Your Stuff, and some have even faked certificates and tick marks.
“We’re always telling people, ‘don’t believe what you see online’. We don’t provide assurances like that. So if you see it, it’s probably fake.
“Just come and check it for yourself and see it with your own eyes ... We’re just trying to be one little point of clarity in a giant, opaque market.”
James's drug testing process
When James met with our podcast producers, he had a small bag squished inside his wallet, containing what he believed to be a capful of MDMA.
This is a potent drug with stimulant properties, primarily used for recreational purposes. The desired effects include altered sensations, increased energy, empathy and pleasure. But it can also have some pretty nasty, undesirable side effects too. Of course that’s if it was indeed MDMA, and there was no way for James to be sure unless he tested it.
“It’s from a pretty reliable source, but sometimes you don’t know.”
After taking the substance to the Know Your Stuff office in Wellington, it was tested and confirmed to be MDMA.
“I feel a lot more comfortable and have a lot more peace of mind knowing that it is what I was told it was,” James said.
The whole service is anonymous. While there, they also checked for any other potential binders or fillers which could cause adverse reactions. The volunteers answered any of James’ questions and provided some harm reduction advice and tips on dosage. And that’s it.
James said he’d definitely encourage his mates to visit a drug testing clinic.
“It’s straight to the point. The facts are there. There’s no like preaching about, oh, you shouldn't be doing drugs, or, you know, either side. It felt like it was a safe space.”
If you’re planning on using
If you’re planning on taking drugs, it’s recommended to use a drug checking clinic near you. It’s legal, easy to find, anonymous and might just give you information that prevents a really bad trip, or worse.
You can find more information on the Know Your Stuff website.
Click here to find a testing clinic near you.
Follow High Alert, New Zealand’s early warning system for dangerous drugs.
If you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s drug use, you can contact the Alcohol & Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or text 8681, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are free and confidential. You’ll speak with a trained counsellor, who will be able to provide you with information, insight and support.
Test Your Drugs: A Trip With James
Our first episode takes us on a journey into the world of drug checking clinics & harm reduction. We attend a session a Know Your Stuff session with James. He has a brown powder sold as MDMA, but is it? There's only one way to find out.