O-Week Drug Testing: What’s AUT doing?
Over the summer, pill testing at New Zealand’s festivals was made legal after the Labour government rushed legislation through parliament. With an unprecedented level of synthetic cathinones found in MDMA this season, Alana McConnell investigates why AUTSA has only chosen to look into drug testing one month out from O-Week.
We are facing a major paradigm shift in Aotearoa when it comes to drug checking and harm reduction. History was made mere months ago in New Zealand when the government legalised pill testing just in time for the chockablocked festival season, in an attempt to reduce harm and all the nasty effects of unknown substances. But we all know that drug use isn’t exclusive to summer festivals, and the question being asked now is whether university student associations like AUTSA will step up to the plate to implement harm reduction like pill testing at O-Week events.
Drug testing in New Zealand used to be in a legal grey area. Community organisation KnowYourStuffNZ could come to festivals at the organiser's invitation, being unable to handle the substances themselves, and keeping faith that police would use their discretion and not disrupt the service. Festivals invited KnowYourStuffNZ at their own risk, keeping in mind at the time it was a crime under Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act to knowingly provide a venue for taking illicit drugs. It wasn’t just at festivals that KYSNZ provided drug checking. During the 2019 Otago O-Week, OUSA organised drug testing in a humble car park under a tent, where thousands of students could gain important information about what they would potentially be taking. A university spokesperson at the time claimed they did not endorse the use of illegal drugs or the drug testing initiative itself, but they also did not interfere with the drug testing.
Time after time, it’s been proven that a harm reduction approach to drugs is strikingly more effective than the hardlined “zero tolerance” approach enforced by the “War on Drugs”, which has failed consistently and resulted in more harm than the actual drugs. In its purest form, harm reduction accepts that people will do drugs regardless of legality and restrictions, and there are a number of ways to reduce the harm associated with drug use, whether it be providing needle exchange programs, pill testing at festivals, peer support programs, overdose prevention services, or supervised consumption services. MDMA is the drug of choice for most recreational drug users in New Zealand, but this past testing season has found that the majority of what was assumed to be MDMA is actually eutylone, a pretty nasty stimulant in the synthetic cathinone family. The side effects include insomnia, anxiety, and hallucinations.
The demand for KYSNZ has skyrocketed in the past few months no doubt due to the law change and in the spike in synthetic drugs. This has meant the small grassroots organisation is struggling to keep up, due to limited resources and funding. VUWSA and OUSA, Victoria and Otago's respective student associations, have just recently announced they will be using KYSNZ’s services at their O-Week, so why isn’t AUT also following suit, with one of the largest student populations in the country? If the wellbeing of students is at the core of AUTSA, it seems like a no brainer that harm reduction would play a huge role in the wellbeing of students at O-Week events.
Simon Bell is the general manager for AUTSA, and we met with him first on the 4th of February, around the beginning stages of the article writing to see what AUTSA’s stance was, and if they were making any moves at all in regards to O-Week and drug testing. We were told that there had been “robust conversations surrounding the event's risk” but this answer didn't indicate what specific plans were set up. More importantly, Simon stated that AUTSA had not been in contact with the university asking about the use of drug testing at the O-Week events.
When asked why AUTSA was yet to start the conversation with AUT on drug testing, Simon suggested that the association was aware that if reservation was met by the university they would need a strong case and plan by their side. However, considering the student association had already had ‘robust’ conversations surrounding the issue, you would imagine a case and plan would have already been established before approaching the university. So it appeared that there had been no moves made to even do the bare minimum of inquiry into what harm reduction measures could be in place at O-Week. This was concerning given that AUTSA were one month out of the event at this point. When we asked Mia KingsleySmith, an organiser to the music festival ‘Welcome to Nowhere,' she stated that organising drug testing often starts at the very beginning of an event planning process, based on an understanding that resources and spectrometers are limited and need to be secured early.
A week passed, and we organised an official interview with Simon on the 11th of February, to follow up on our informal discussion. A few things had changed, namely that AUTSA had now begun talking and meeting to discuss implementing harm reduction resources at O-Week. AUTSA began contacting three organisations on the 9th of February for the event, including High Alert and KYSNZ. Simon claimed this outreach began due to student concern for drug testing, based off of evidence of a student focus group. Simon also mentioned that AUTSA posed the idea of drug testing to AUT and they came back with support for the testing. At this point AUTSA had not even sourced or been in contact with a drug testing group. So, the earlier claim made by AUTSA that they would need a strong case and plan by their side when meeting with AUT seems almost redundant. We have a suspicion that no movement at all would be made with AUTSA seeking out harm reduction if Debate Magazine hadn’t expressed concern and investigated the matter. We soon found out that on the 2nd of December of last year, the early warning system for dangerous drugs, High Alert, had gotten in touch with AUTSA to make them aware of their services and to offer the chance to collaborate and have a presence around the AUT campus. This email was not responded to by AUTSA, and only acknowledged on the 9th of February after Debate had these discussions with AUTSA. The conversation ideally would have started in December, with harm reduction groups like High Alert. being involved in the event planning process from the start, like many other universities had done. When AUTSA eventually got back to ‘High Alert the organisation responded by saying that they were unable to provide support on such late notice as they had already confirmed their O-Week schedule.
I decided a few years ago to volunteer for KnowYourStuffNZ, motivated by my own challenging drug experience at the age of 18, in which my ignorance was challenged, and my awareness was opened to the benefits of harm reduction. I realised there were two camps of people: those who demonised drugs and viewed them as a terrifying force, and those who thought drugs were a fun activity where there was absolutely no risk involved at all. Finding a balance between these camps, volunteering for KYSNZ was an immensely gratifying experience, where I worked alongside passionate and like-minded individuals who wanted to do their bit to contribute to this shift in our society. I met a range
In its purest form, harm reduction accepts that people will do drugs regardless of legality and restrictions.
of unique people all accessing the service, many of whom challenged my perceptions on who a stereotypical drug user was, engaging in lively and rich conversation with them, and who were grateful to be able to use a free service like KYSNZ.
When writing this article, I reached out to Wendy Allison, the founder of KnowYourStuffNZ, who I had the pleasure of working alongside at festivals a number of times. Wendy is a strong visionary, who puts her amazing ideals into practice in a way that is transparent and straight to the point. I have never met someone who is as knowledgeable about policy, harm reduction, and drugs as Wendy. Creating the first drug testing organisation in New Zealand at a time when it wasn’t legal, with no funding, is no easy feat.
I asked Wendy about what’s been happening in New Zealand with drug testing since the law change, and more specifically what the roles and responsibilities of university institutions should be when it comes to harm reduction. Wendy said “if a university has a duty of care for their students’ overall wellbeing, access to harm reduction service for those students who choose to use drugs are logical, reasonable, and pragmatic part of that.” As to why some institutions and sectors of the population would be slow to come around to the idea of drug testing as an integral component of drug testing, Wendy commented “many organisations fear reputational repercussions based on the incorrect notion that drug checking somehow condones or encourages drug use. Universities are somewhat answerable to the parents of their student body, and parents are often not familiar with harm reduction principles and how they work. Education on what harm reduction and drug checking achieves would be helpful for improving understanding and reducing stigma.”
Wendy encourages students who are attending O-Week events at which KYSNZ is not at, to access the public clinics that KYSNZ may be putting on, or buy their own reagent tests from the Hempstore or Cosmic. She does however caution that reagent tests can only detect one thing and the colour change can mask more subtle changes that will show if another substance is present. KYSNZ advises still approaching the substance with caution after the reagent test. She finishes on this: “we encourage universities and student associations to work together to come up with solutions for drug checking, and we would like to extend an offer to facilitate and work with universities to provide this service for themselves, reducing reliance on KnowYourStuffNZ. We are a small, unfunded, grassroots organisation and simply cannot meet a skyrocketing demand - universities are in an ideal position to meet their own needs.”
I’m very curious to see what the future of harm reduction will look like in New Zealand, and what institutions and groups will decide to become a part of the change. Gabor Maté, a leader in social change when it comes to drugs has stated “The War on Drugs is doomed to fail because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself are appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.” Choosing to turn a blind eye to our reality is only creating a bigger problem.
It appeared that there had been no moves made to even do the bare minimum of inquiry into what harm reduction measures could be in place at O-Week.
*Prior to publishing Simon Bell, AUTSA's General Manager, would like to add a right of reply as follows: I would like to reassure AUT students, that AUTSA have always considered the AUTSA O-Week Events of low risk as regard drug use and harm, with no reportable incidents in the 3 years I have been at AUT.
Editor's Note: Since the writing of this piece, KnowYourStuffNZ has reported around 40% of MDMA tested at O-Week events already underway contained harmful synthetic cathinone. This is more than double of what was recorded at last year's events.