Police Minister Stuart Nash wants to set up drug-testing services at music festivals for young people next summer. This is not the drug testing of people as recently proposed for road safety, this is the testing of drugs for the safety of users. Nash was responding to a discovery of traces of a pesticide in an illegal drug seized by police last weekend at the Rhythm and Vines event at Gisborne. The same day, a festival attendee in Australia died of a drug overdose.

Nash said he wants to see "a more compassionate and restorative approach" to the use of drugs. He and Health Minister David Clark announced last month the Government intends to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act to direct police not to bring prosecutions for possession and use of illicit drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine, "where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in a prosecution".

At the same time they want to toughen the law against the production and distribution of illicit substances. But possessing them for personal use looks likely to be effectively decriminalised before the public will be invited to vote on the legalisation of cannabis at the referendum to be held with the next election.

The NZ Drug Foundation, which greeted Nash's proposal for drug testing at music festivals as "fantastic news", pointed out the Act would first have to be amended to relieve festival organisers of liability for drugs on their site. So if testing is to be provided at festivals next summer, legislation will have to be passed this year.

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Not so fast, some people will say. Exactly how are these drug-testing stations at music festivals going to work? If a young person comes along with methamphetamine and wants to make sure it is not rat poison, and the Government's testing agency finds it is not contaminated, will it simply be handed back to the youngster? What does treating drugs as "a health issue" mean in practice?

At the very least it should mean drugs passing a test of purity should not be handed back without warnings and advice on ways to minimise the risks that drug reformers acknowledge they present. Those risks may be less immediately harmful than a contaminated substance that sends a user to hospital of the sort of overdose that killed the man at the festival in New South Wales, but the lingering damage to young minds should not be dismissed.

The philosophy behind drug testing holds that the law cannot stop people taking harmful drugs if they want to. Therefore it is more compassionate to help them minimise the harm if that is possible, and it will not be possible if the criminal law makes them afraid to seek help.

That will be true for many drug addicts but nobody knows how many have not become drug addicts because their use is a crime. We might get some indication if it ceases to be a crime.

In the meantime, the Government needs to proceed with extreme care. If taxpayers are going to provide drug-testing services at gatherings of young people, it should be done in a way that does not suggest society condones the drugs that pass. The message should be given that, legal or not, messing with mind-altering substances is sheer folly.