Come festival season, everybody wants to have a good time and experience the breadth of human experience. This can be risky, but it’s why volunteers from KnowYourStuffNZ freely dispense credible information and a dose of science at festivals around New Zealand. The Drug Foundation has been helping out and sent photographer Josiah Pasikale along to capture what happened at the harm reduction tent over one 2018 summer festival weekend.
When New Zealanders gather at various festivals to enjoy music, dance, sun, nature and each other’s company, some will choose to use drugs.
For most, this will be a positive experience, but due to the nature of the black market, it can be a gamble. People have to trust their cousin’s friend of a friend that they have ‘the good stuff’.
Because the current law does not offer legal protection to event organisers who host harm reduction services offering drug safety checking, the existence of the service isn’t shouted loudly.
However it doesn’t take long for people to find the service. Word of mouth soon gets around that there’s a tent where there is some state-of-the-art testing technology providing a service people have been wanting for years.
The testing and advice is free and confidential. As with any harm reduction approach, the aim is to provide reliable information so that people can make more-informed decisions. No tut-tutting here.
Know Your Stuff NZ sign - Harm Reduction by Know Your Stuff NZ
Testing of substances is a two-part process. Once the client prepares a small amount of their sample to be tested, an initial screen is done using reagents, then a full screen using an infrared spectrometer. Each has its place, and festival goers get to watch the whole process.
Only the most significant components in a substance can be identified – keeping a look out for anything nasty or unexpected. The testing can’t indicate purity or potency. Any unwanted substances can be destroyed.
While the substance is being checked, the KnowYourStuffNZ team will provide advice around what substance someone has, what to look out for and how to be safer if someone decides to use it.
The whole process takes around 15 minutes.
A volunteer sing the infrared spectrometer - A volunteer uses the infrared spectrometer to do a full screen test.
Know Your Stuff NZ volunteers at work - Know Your Stuff NZ volunteers dispense harm reduction advice
A log is kept of substances that are tested. Information of this kind is rare and has many uses: tracking trends, identifying new substances and the basis for issuing warnings if there are dangerous substances circulating.
When people receive the results of their sample, they’re asked if they still intend to take the drug. This is the only personal piece of information that is collected to show the impact of the service and how it changes behaviour. When the drug is not what people were expecting, more than half say they don’t intend to use it. For those who do still plan to use it, many say they are more informed and often comment on being more careful with the new information they have.
The data is aggregated at the end of the season and made publicly available.
Testing is currently not funded due to the legal grey area it inhabits. A change to the Misuse of Drugs Act would enable this service to be available at many more festivals and other nightlife events.
Harm reduction pocket information cards - Harm reduction information is freely dispensed.
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
A group of powerful synthetic opioids that were first detected in the country just a year ago may have already been linked to several deaths.
95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.