Why is New Zealand doing this?
According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Health, around 9 percent of New Zealanders have used an illicit drug in the past year, with cannabis the most popular. Synthetic cannabis is a common problem, with more than 40 deaths associated with the drug reported in 2018. (The country narrowly voted against legalizing marijuana in a referendum last year.) Drugs are the third most common reason young people are kicked out of school.
While New Zealand has long struggled with methamphetamine abuse, party drugs are increasingly common. In 2019, the New Zealand police seized more than two million Ecstasy tablets and their equivalents, up 560 percent from 2018.
It is these party drugs in particular that have resulted in injury or death, sometimes as a result of people taking mislabeled or contaminated drugs. This year, KnowYourStuff received almost 1,000 messages from festivalgoers who reported atypical reactions to drugs sold to them as MDMA, including paranoia, seizures, severe nausea and days of insomnia. The drugs are believed to have been contaminated with synthetic cathinones.
Speaking in Parliament last year, Andrew Little, the minister of health, emphasized that the current New Zealand government saw drug policy as a health matter rather than a criminal one.
A prosecution-led approach has not worked, he said, adding: “It’s not changing. If we want to change behaviors, then we’ve got to take a different approach.”
But does it work?
The data is spotty, but promising.
A survey from Victoria University found that 68 percent of surveyed festivalgoers who used the testing services changed their behavior, with some reducing the amount they took while others disposed of their drugs altogether.
A similar study held at a festival in Canberra, Australia, in 2019 found that “all those who had a very dangerous substance detected disposed of that drug in the amnesty bin.”