A world-first law change allowing drug checking organisations to legally work at festivals checks into reality this New Year.
Festival organisers are no longer at risk of prosecution under section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act if they choose to have an organisation like Know Your Stuff at their event.
Despite the country's two biggest New Year's Festivals - Rhythm and Vines and Northern Bass - being postponed this year due to Covid restrictions, drug testing organisations and police will be working hard to keep festival-goers safe this summer.
Drug checking service Know Your Stuff has already run many static services this year, touring throughout the country.
In the past month leading up to New Year, it has run about 10 clinics nationwide from Auckland down to Dunedin. Its services have been at full capacity every time.
Know Your Stuff is set to continue its tour throughout summer, including stopping at Twisted Frequencies in Nelson over New Year.
For those gearing up for these summer festivals, the advice is to test your drugs.
Last year, police saw an increase in synthetic cathinones consumption.
National Drug Intelligence Bureau Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald said last year was "a huge concern: to them as "dangerous cathinones were being sold on the pretence they were MDMA".
He said this year, police have noticed a rise in MDMA use and a decrease in cathinones.
However, cathinones are still appearing on the market.
"Cathinones pose considerably more risk, which is why drug checking services are such an important harm prevention tool, showing people what substances they have."
Know Your Stuff media and advocacy lead Yvonne Booysen said cathinones' unpredictability is concerning and with fewer desirable effects, people are likely to take more in the hopes they will have a better time.
"If you do run into counterfeit MDMA stay hydrated, try to eat and get some sleep.
"If you have heart palpitations or other concerning symptoms go to the ER."
She said people should look to Know Your Stuff's website for more information about the effects of taking specific drugs.
Macdonald said drug identification is only half the service of drug checkers.
He said, just as important, drug checkers can have a conversation with people about the drugs, what the risks are and the steps people can take to keep themselves safe.
"When a person is told their substance is not what they thought it was, they often choose not to take it," said Macdonald.
Research conducted by police last year found 68 percent of people changed their behaviour after using a drug checking service. Eighty-seven percent of people said they better understood drug use harms.
"Police are always concerned about any harm to individuals that may occur and we want to do everything we can to prevent it," said Macdonald.
Police are thus continuing to support the work of drug checking organisations as partygoers make the most of live music this summer.
Police work at festivals to provide a reassuring presence and actively respond to any incidents that occur.
"Police have discretion when it comes to dealing with people possessing and consuming personal quantities of drugs," said Macdonald.
He said when deciding on prosecuting an individual consideration is always given to whether a health-based approach is more beneficial. This is seen through the small number of drugs seized not matching the reality of how much is being consumed.
Data from police received from an Official Information Act request from the Herald revealed the most commonly seized drug at festivals between 1 January 2018 and 31 July 2021 was MDMA with 81 seizures.
This was 759g of MDMA powder/crystal seized, along with 493 tablets and 422 grams of MDMA tablets.
The next biggest drug seizure was 1106g of cannabis in 44 seizures.
Specifically, over last year's festival period, the most commonly seized drug was MDMA (19 seizures), followed by Cannabis (9 seizures).
However, police noted this will be an underrepresentation of the total seizures. Furthermore, most of the drugs will not have been tested by police, therefore it is possible they do not correctly identify the commodity. This is particularly likely for MDMA, the OIA reply said.
For anyone who has been to a music festival, you will know what has been recorded does not reflect reality and it is because of the police's approach to keeping people safe instead of enforcing punitive measures.
Booysen said Know Your Stuffs interactions with police has always been positive.
Music festival organisers are also eager to protect their party goers and get drug checking services on site.
However, drug checking organisations continue to lack capacity, a big barrier to their harm reduction services.
Booysen said Know Your Stuff is a majority volunteer-based organisation with no full-time staff, only five FTIR spectrometers and no permanent testing venues.
"This year's law change is phenomenal, but resourcing remains a barrier to the lifesaving work," said Auckland Central Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick.
Rhythm and Alps founder Alex Turnbull said they would not be having any drug testing on site but will be focusing on Covid compliance. He said the festival had been in discussion with world-leading Canadian drug checking companies earlier this year.
However, due to Covid, it couldn't get them in so drug checking on site has been parked for now. He said: "When we do it, we want to do it really, really well."
Sub180 director Ashleigh Rangi said they reached out to Know Your Stuff very early on when they began to plan Canterbury's newest New Year's festival Rolling Meadows.
She said at that time, they were already booked out.
"We are really gutted we are not able to offer the drug testing services but we will definitely see if it's changed for next year's festival."
Swarbrick said drug checking services save lives but more work needs to be done to reduce harm.
"When people hear the services are available but it's not being met with resourcing, the need is unmet."
The Auckland Central Green Party MP continues to advocate for the "scrapping" of the Misuse of Drugs Act and greater funding going towards drug checking services.
"It's ludicrous people pretend drug consumption only happens at music festivals when it happens at bars, clubs and parties too," she said.
"This is why it is so important there's widespread access to drug checking services."
Booysen said this year's legislation change was a step in the right direction...but Know Your Stuff hopes drug laws will continue to move to a more health-based approach.
"Know Your Stuff exists because they feel they shouldn't have too."
Booysen said they think drug laws should get to a regulated market where substances don't have to be tested because people already know what they are.
If people cannot access Know Your Stuff's drug checking services, people can buy home-testing kits from stores such as Cosmic.
High Alert is also a source of current information about dangerous new substances and people can sign up to their website to receive alerts about this.