I have to confess that music festivals are not really my thing. I'm an avid music-lover. I often become infatuated with songs and listen to them over and over on repeat. I've paid extortionate ticket prices to attend gigs where I'm only interested in (okay, obsessed with) one of the artists on the bill.

But queuing for portaloos, having beer spilt all over me, eating over-priced and underwhelming food and spending hours in the blaring sun is no longer my idea of fun. What can I say? I'm getting old.

Music festivals are something of a rite of passage, however. I vividly remember attending my first Big Day Out when I was 15. The feeling of my ribs being slammed against the barrier at the front of the mosh pit during Deja Voodoo's set. The overpoweringly pungent smell of teenage boys' armpits. Emerging from the mosh pit covered in other people's sweat. The nervous wait as one of my friends tried his luck at the beer tent with his fake ID. The enormous, thronging crowd. The thick cloud of cannabis smoke in the Boiler Room. Teenaged bliss.


Music festivals are, to many young people, what long lunches are to certain Auckland social sets: not to be missed, unless you want to be cast into social obscurity.

And just as long lunches inevitably involve a fair bit of, ahem, embracing the grape; for some music lovers, festivals involve intoxicating substances of a different nature. Such is life. There's no point pretending it doesn't happen. And it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Unlike alcohol consumed on licensed premises, however, there's no guarantee that party drugs are what they claim to be. This summer in Australia there has been a spate of tragic drug-related deaths at music festivals.

Here at home, drugs intercepted at one of the biggest festivals of the year, Rhythm and Vines, were found to be laced with pesticides and other hazardous chemicals.

There's no denying that taking prohibited substances is an exercise in rolling the dice and hoping for the best. While such substances remain illegal, there is no way to guarantee their quality or to regulate their use.

By contrast, alcohol – that legal but still dangerous drug – is quality controlled and labelled to ensure that consumers are aware of its potency.

The laws and regulations surrounding alcohol consumption have been set in place to encourage people to consume alcohol as safely as possible.

There is no such safety framework for common drugs like cannabis and MDMA. Despite the risks, however, people will use them. All kinds of people. Wealthy executives, office workers, creatives, students, and everyone in between. If you believe the stereotype that drug-use is confined to beneficiaries and wayward kids, you are deluded.


As the abysmal failure of the so-called 'war on drugs' has proven, telling people not to take drugs is a waste of time. Human beings have been getting high for millennia, and contrary to the scaremongering of the morally indignant, the vast majority of drug users have experienced little or no harm.

There are an unlucky few, however, who have experienced serious harm as a result of their drug use, whether through poisoning, addiction, the severing of familial and other social bonds, loss of employment, or other potential consequences.

Countless studies have concluded that treating drug use as a health issue creates better outcomes for those people who struggle with their drug-taking – particularly those who would otherwise be criminalised and sent to prison, the university of crime – and for society as a whole.

Treating drug use as a health issue means focusing on the reduction of harm rather than the punitive (and pointless, given our ridiculous recidivism statistics) approach of condemnation.

One of the easiest ways to reduce harm from drug taking is to enable people to test the illicit drugs they're planning to use to check whether the drug is the substance they think it is, whether it's something else entirely, or whether it's laced with dangerous additives.

Combine such drug-checking with trained professionals giving information about possible side effects and other safety information, and tragedies can be averted.

Drug checking at music festivals – setting up stations where people can voluntarily take their drugs to test exactly what they are, and receive information about the risks and side effects of the substances they are using – seems like an absolute no-brainer to me.

Whatever your stance on drug use, surely no one wants kids in hospital – or dead – after ingesting rat poison, paint thinners or some other concoction of God knows what.

The legislative framework in New Zealand currently technically prohibits such drug-checking initiatives, although the service exists in a legal grey area, and some festivals do offer it while police largely look the other way.

Minister of Police, Stuart Nash, has recently come out in support of allowing festival-goers to check their drugs, though such a change in policy would require a change of legislation. A much needed one.

According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, of the samples tested at New Zealand festivals last year, 20 per cent were not what the user thought they were.

A further 11 per cent were adulterated with other psychoactive substances.

When the substance was not what the user had thought it was, 52 per cent indicated that they no longer intended to take it.

Drug-checking undoubtedly alters drug-taking behaviour so that people make safer decisions.

Critics will argue that it provides a green light for users to take drugs – a ridiculous argument, given that people will take drugs anyway, whether they've been checked or not.

I know I'd much rather equip young people with information about the substances they're planning to take – and inform them if they're about to ingest a potentially fatal substance – than pretend that they'll just not use drugs because they're not supposed to.

It's time for us to get real and save lives.

Lizzie Marvelly is a member of the board of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.