Hard News by Russell Brown


Splore 2019 – Please Don't F*ck This Up Part 3: Harm Reduction

This is the third excerpt from the panel looking at the next two years' pending drug policy reforms at the Splore Listening Lounge in February this year.

Those reforms include a new amendment guiding police discretion in the case of drug possession (effectively requiring the police to justify prosecution), new medicinal cannabis regulations, the possibility of onsite drug checking getting some legal cover, a new focus (and funding) for addiction services and treatment and next year's referendum on legalising cannabis for adult use.

The panel was called, in recognition of the historic opportunity these reforms embody, Please Don't Fuck This Up.

Panelists were Chloe Swarbrick MP, Wendy Allison of the volunteer harm reduction service Know Your Stuff, Otago University researcher Geoff Noller and David Hornblow, who works for Waipareira Trust and independently as an addiction practitioner.

This section of the panel covers harm reduction – and specifically festival drug-checking of the kind conducted by Know Your Stuff. The organisation's work was stukl underway at the time of the panel, but this week, Know Your Stuff announced that it conducted 880 tests over summer – twice as many as the previous summer.

The last of those rounds of testing, during O-Week in Dunedin, was potentially the most alarming. After initially identifying a white powder presented in capsules presumed by the holder to be MDMA as the cathinone n-ethylpentylone – which put several young people in hospital last summer – Know Your Stuff determined that the powder was in fact a different, previously-unseen cathinone, identified only as C86. The Otago Daily Times duly relayed a warning.

It's a warning that would not have been possible without Know Your Stuff's work. But the Misuse of Drugs Act continues to hamper that work. Section 12 of the Act, which puts event organisers at risk if they allow this kind of harm reduction, has been widely discussed. But the organisation is also asking for changes to Section 7, which currently prevents volunteers handling samples (technical possession) or taking them away for lab testing. The problem is particularly acute in the case of new and unknown substances like the sample in Dunedin.

But back in February, I opened the topic by observing to Wendy Allison that the Minister of Police, Stuart Nash, had spoken after Rhythm and Vines and said he would like to see permitted drug checking at events as part of a harm reduction practice. Had the comments made any difference?

Wendy: Okay, so the first thing that happened when we heard that was we all did a little happy dance around the room. Then we sat down and we thought about it, because the second thing that happened was festivals and events started ringing us up and going, well if the Police Minister is supporting it, then we want you.

And we've had to turn down six events since then. The reason being that we have access to two spectrometers, we have 50 volunteers, and we run entirely on donations. So essentially, we have not enough money, not enough equipment, and not enough people.

So if Minister Nash's vision is to be realised by next festival season, then some sort of support and framework for that support needs to be forthcoming. So we rang him up, and went, Okay, you said you wanted to know how this works. We know how it works, let's talk. And we got together with him, and said, your vision is great, we love it, but support is needed – and the response is that the government is not in a position to provide financial support to a service like ours without a change in the legislation.

Because they need it to be explicitly legal, or the public will not support any financial support to us. And we can't charge events for our service because they can't put us on their books. Because of the legislation. So the next question is, how is the legislation going to change, and when is it going to change?

"Before next season" is a lovely happy thing to say, but in order to actually get a trained, well-supported, well-equipped team out there next season at all of the events, we need the law changed by June. So that's what we're pushing for. We're advocating for what we do to be explicitly legal, for the ability to provide support and also small things like being able to actually touch the substances – because if we're going to go to an event like Rhythm and Vines, which has 20,000 people, with several spectrometers, we're going to need to be able to process that stuff ourselves.

At the moment, we're making everybody do it in front of us – so every single person is new to it, and we have to teach them how to do it, and that means it takes way longer than it needs to. So realistically, a lot of work needs to happen, but the main one is changing that law and changing it quickly. 

Chloe: If I can just talk on what Wendy's just saying, and Wendy obviously knows this inside out, but for the sake of background, the barrier is Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is a carbon copy of the UK legislation, Misuse of Drugs Act 1972.

The general premise of it is that any use of a drug is a misuse. But it also essentially prescribes certain levels of substances where, if you have over a certain amount then it's presumed that you have it for supply, at which point there is a reversal of the burden of proof – which is absolutely contrary to the Bill of Rights Act, but we do not have a supreme codified constitution. But that's a whole other point. 

The issue with Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act is that it essentially says that it is illegal to knowingly provide a place where people will consume illegal substances. So theoretically actually all festivals are kind of in a grey area there, as are all bars and clubs.

W: And hovercraft.

Wendy's not joking. It specifically says in Section 12 that if  you knowingly allow people to take drugs in your hovercraft …

W: Don't do it, kids.

You're in some significant criminal peril. And the short version here is that it's all very well for politicians to say the nice things.

C: I mean, this is the point that, I didn't come into parliament to advocate for drug law reform, it just struck me when I inherited Julie Anne Genter's medicinal cannabis bill that nobody else was advocating in this space generally. And the more research that I looked at, and the more evidence that I looked at, I just found out how grotesquely fucked up it is that we've had these laws for 40 years and they've only perpetuated harm. They have pushed substances into the shadows, and they have made them more dangerous as well. And they have made them controlled by people who you do not want the illicit supply of substances to be controlled by.

Geoff: Just to add to that too Chloe, we have a national drug policy, and the central plank of the national drug policy is harm reduction, and the key element of that is that it's accepted that people will use substances, so the aim of policy is to reduce harm as much as possible. And if you change policy, whatever you do, even if the use of substances increases, as long as there is a net reduction in harm. 

C: And it's one thing to say that there's a policy, and there's another thing to have legislation, which is to Wendy's point. So it's awesome for the Police minister to be saying this stuff, and I've been working a lot with Stuart. There's kind of like a holy trifecta of ministers who have responsibility for drug law, and it's Minister David Clarke, who's Minister of Health, Andrew Little, Minister of Justice, and Stuart Nash, who's Minister of Police. So they have a lot of chats about the future of things.

But speaking to your point, leading into this whole chat, there is massive reform coming in the Misuse of Drugs Act this year, and what I'm trying to hold politicians' hands through is the fear of the blowback from the general public. But based on my experience talking to the general public about this stuff, people are far ahead of politicians, and they kind of always have been. 

W: From our perspective, all of the feedback we've had on our service has been 100% positive. You get the odd Australian ranting at us on the internet, but apart from that, we have never had anybody come up and say, This is a stupid idea, you shouldn't do it.

Something else that's going on in this space that is related to this, is that New Zealand's early warning system is finally starting to get moving. And we are involved. They've finally realised that we exist and we have information that could help with this.

They've rung us up, they've got us round the table, and the potential framework for this is a database in which everyone who collects information about substances that are out there, puts it into this database. And a group of people who have specific knowledge in the area – for example, we would be the representatives for the festival and events sector – then makes a decision about whether an alert is worth putting out and how it should be worded, so that people actually know what's out there, instead of just finding out when we put something on Facebook. Because that's not good enough.

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