The Government will pass time limited legislation to give legal certainty to drug checking services, so they can carry out their work to keep New Zealanders safer this summer at festivals without fear of prosecution, Health Minister Andrew Little says.
Next year the Government will develop and consult on regulations to provide a long-term solution.
Until today, drug checking services such as Know Your Stuff, who test festival goers’ drugs for high risk substances and dangerous impurities and offer safety advice, have effectively been operating illegally.
“This law change today provides these services with narrow and time limited protection this summer against prosecution for short term possession of illegal drugs while they test them,” Andrew Little says.
“In the new year the Government will develop and consult on regulations so that by this time next year, a full system will be in place to regulate drug checking service over the long term.
“This gives welcome reassurance to those operating the services and festival organisers who host them that they will not be criminalised for their efforts to keep young New Zealanders safe this summer.
“This is not about condoning young New Zealanders’ use of drugs. We would prefer they didn’t. But the evidence is that when allowed to operate, drug checking services can significantly reduce drug harm.
“Few of us will be comfortable at the prospect of our young family members and friends taking potentially dangerous illegal drugs at festivals, but our preference is they are safe rather than harmed.
“By changing the law to allow drug checking services to operate legally, we are removing a significant disincentive for young New Zealanders to access this potentially life -saving service.
“Preliminary findings from a recent Victoria University of Wellington study suggest the law change we are making today is likely to increase uptake of drug checking by festival organisers and therefore festival goers.
“The study found that most people who have their drugs checked change their behaviour, and come away with increased knowledge of how to keep themselves and their friends safe. This is in line with international research.
“There is good evidence that other drug harm reduction initiatives – such as needle exchanges – have not resulted in more drug use but they have kept people safer.
“The Government is committed to minimising drug harm and to treating drugs as a health issue. I make no apology for prioritising young New Zealanders’ safety this summer with this law change,” Andrew Little said.
Drug checking services enable people to get their drugs tested and can have a conversation with a knowledgeable source about the risks they are taking by consuming them. This service provides information to people who already intend to take drugs to make better, safer and more informed decisions.
Drug checking has been operating at festivals in New Zealand for several years. In that time, the service has found a wide range of substances in circulation, including very dangerous synthetic cathinones. When a person is told that their substance is not what they thought it was, they will often choose not to take it. That is a decision which can save their life.
The Bill will enable the Director-General of Health to appoint a drug checking service by way of notice in the Gazette. Appointed services will be able to receive controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances for testing or destruction, or to pass on to Police for destruction or an approved laboratory for further testing.
The Bill does not change the legal status of any drugs or other substances. It will still be a crime for members of the public to possess illegal drugs and to supply them to others.