New Zealand Steps Up Drug Checking

Stephen Andrews
06 Dec 2021

Breaking stigma on drug use, New Zealand lawmakers have introduced a new policy for recreational drugs. Festivalgoers can now test illicit substances before consuming and face no charges whatsoever. It's considered that the measure will save lives. The Netherlands and Portugal are rare examples around the world where there are longstanding drug-checking services as well, but services continue to run in a legally gray area in these two countries.

When it comes to cannabis, New Zealand policymakers make no rush. The country's government has recently decided it will fund more research before expanding regulation on medical cannabis. A referendum to legalize the adult use of cannabis failed last year. And while things may be moving more slowly for cannabis than previously anticipated, New Zealanders write history with becoming the first nation in the world it will take drug checking out of a legal gray zone. 

Legalized drug checking services will enable individuals to assess the safety of illicit substances taken at festivals and similar events—notably, without fearing a legal action may follow for the user (or the volunteer who runs the lab test) after that. 

This new regulation on recreational drugs comes into effect on December 7. It replaces a trial version of the same law that expires at the year's end. Experts and advocacy groups have commended the policy. 

"This is truly a moment to celebrate. It has been over three decades since the last significant gain was made," said in a statement Executive Director of the NZ Drug Foundation, Sarah Helm. 

Helm said drug checking has proven to be a hugely effective harm reduction tool that saves lives by providing individuals with accurate information to make safer decisions. 

She also said, "This new law provides a great opportunity to expand [the] availability of services to more vulnerable communities."

The NZ Drug Foundation has for years supported the country's pioneering drug checking provider KnowYour Stuff. The organizations have helped thousands of people with drug-checking, doing all the work at the margins of the law, at great risk to themselves. The new law will ease the work of the service providers. 

Drug checking gives people key information to make safer decisions. A recent report from KnowYourStuff found that 68% of people who used the organization's services between April 2020 and March 2021 said they would not take a substance after doing the drug assessment and finding it was not what they thought it was. 

While events such as music festivals will remain focal points for the assessment of drugs in New Zealand, the law will allow providers to reach out to more vulnerable communities via pop-up clinics in urban centers and alongside other health and social services. 

"Many of our communities most at risk of overdose would hugely benefit from this health service, like people who use injected drugs and people who are homeless. This health service shouldn't just be for festivalgoers. 

"We would like to see more widespread availability of drug checking through needle exchanges and social services as soon as possible – in the next year," Helm said. 

The drug-checking law has its opponents in New Zealand, however. The New Zealand's National party members categorically voted no for the bill; the outcome of the vote was 33 against 88 in favor.

The National party spokesperson Simon Bridges expressed strong criticism against the law, saying, "The only message that really stops fatalities is that no pill is safe," according to RNZ

"There's no such thing as a safe ecstasy or a safe dose of some of the other drugs that may in time be able to be tested," said Bridges. 

Stephen Andrews