Health Minister Andrew Little wants drug-checking services available to those who need it most, including the homeless, rather than just those who are rich enough to buy festival tickets.
The services could also be used to reduce harm for thousands of medicinal cannabis patients who use "green fairy" products from the black market but cannot be sure of what's in them.
The Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill passed its third and final reading in Parliament today, which provides legal certainty for drug-checking services to operate.
It is considered a vital part of the harm-reduction strategy by those in the sector who are frustrated at the Government ruling out any major drug law reform this term.
The new law will take the place of existing legislation that did the same thing, but expires at the end of the year.
It passed with the support of all parties except National, who claimed it sent the wrong message about the use of illicit drugs.
But Little said the reality was that people took illicit substances.
"That is a fact of life—and many are taking a risk in doing so. Many purchase those substances from sources, the integrity of which cannot be assured. It is important that we do what we can to keep them safe.
"These services need to be available to some members of the community who are users of substances, but who are not attendees of music festivals and orientation weeks—people who might live on the streets or people who live in constrained or deprived circumstances."
Drug-checking services do not increase the use of illegal drugs, nor encourage those who don't use them to start using them, according to a November 2020 report by Victoria University Associate Professor Fiona Hutton.
In the year to March 2021, KnowYourStuffNZ checked 2744 samples. A quarter of them were not what they were meant to be, and 68 per cent of people said they would no longer take the substance, while 18 per cent said they would and 14 per cent said they might.
Of particular concern was the finding that only two-thirds of substances meant to be MDMA was actually MDMA, and there was an increasing proportion of cathinones including eutylone, which has been associated with deaths and hospitalisations.
A major hurdle in rolling out services is lack of hardware, which is not included in the Government's $800,000 fund for mostly training and education material.
Little said it will take time to bed in the new system, and next year the Government can look to see where and how services need to be rolled out.
"I am determined that we have something that goes beyond music festivals and pop-up clinics."
As well as KnowYourStuffNZ, the NZ Drug Foundation and the NZ Needle Exchange Programme (NEP) have also been issued licences to be drug-checking services.
The latter, which has 20 static outlets from Whangārei to Invercargill as well as a mobile clinic on the West Coast, is considered particularly important in offering the service to the most vulnerable, including the homeless.
"We have this very well established, trusted channel to a group of people who are often stigmatised, vulnerable and who face discrimination," said NEP national operations manager Philippa Jones.
"That is really our strength - a non-judgmental service to a broader range of clients who might not otherwise be getting harm reduction advice."
NEP is designing its drug-checking service and a key issue will be funding for spectrometers - $50,000 each.
"It's all dependent on funding because we don't have funding for equipment. That's something I understand the Ministry [of Health] is looking at."
KnowYourStuffNZ plans to open more public clinics, but managing director Wendy Allison said the real strength of the new law was opening to door to other organisations to support their communities.
"That's a huge step towards true equity."
Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm hailed the passage of the law as a "huge moment in the history of preventing drug harm in New Zealand".
"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."
Medicinal cannabis potential
Little also welcomed the harm reduction potential in the medicinal cannabis space, where thousands of people use products from so-called green fairies for therapeutic purposes - though Little was wary of the mood of the electorate.
"I wouldn't want to get ahead of the cannabis debate and judgment that the electorate has already passed [in last year's personal cannabis referendum] on broader liberalisation of that substance.
"[But] it absolutely has potential. It would be totally possible under the regime in the legislation," he said, though whether a licence is granted for this purpose will generally fall to the director-general of health.
An ESR study published in May this year tested 100 green fairy samples , and found "a wide range of cannabinoid concentrations, and the claim that a product was high in CBD was often not correct".
Legal medicinal cannabis remains too expensive for most patients, though the prescription medicines market has recently been bolstered by two CBD products by Helius Therapeutics - the first to be successfully developed by a New Zealand company.
Auckland commercial property businessman Grant Hoey plans to apply for a drug-checking licence next year, and has bought a $50,000 high-performance liquid chromatography instrument that can check for cannabinoids.
"I can detect and quantify cannabinoids in medicines that are homemade to let patients know what's in them, and also what harmful substances there might be including plant growth regulators, weed sprays and heavy metals," he told the Herald in August.
"And that's what I'm aiming to do."