Hard News by Russell Brown

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Speaking as equals: the rise of Know Your Stuff

Five years ago, Know Your Stuff didn't have a name. They were just a group of people from the festival community who began testing party drugs onsite because they'd seen the consequences of people taking substances they couldn't identify or didn't understand. They didn't want to see people in their own culture in distress, or needing medical attention, or dying.

Since then they've grown, taken on a name and a brand and become a key part of the frontline of harm reduction. Until this year, they've had to operate on a wink and a nod, because of the potential consequences for event organisers who allow them on site. This year, that changed: Splore's organisers decided they would talk to news media and be open about Know Your Stuff's presence and why they were there.

The result was this One News report, which features a quick bite of the Splore Listening Lounge conversation I had with Know Your Stuff's deputy manager, Dr Jez Weston. The edited transcript of that conversation is published below.

We don't know what next summer's festival scene looks like, or if there will be one. But if festivals go ahead, I think there's the potential for a return to dangerous substances being sold as MDMA in particular, given likely disruption to international supply chains. If that happens, you'll hear about it first from Know Your Stuff – and their role will be more important than ever. But maybe we'll get that law change ...

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Our first guest represents an organisation I've seen grow from a down-low testing service for mates to an organisation everyone else, including medics and journalists, relies on for accurate information on what's happening with party drugs. So please welcome Dr Jez Weston of Know Your Stuff. Jez, first, a quick explanation for people in the audience who who may not know: what is Know Your Stuff? What do you do?

Okay, we go to a lot of festivals, we set up a tent, people bring us their drugs. And then they can get them tested before they take them. They can find out what they've got and get good advice about what are the risks, what are the impacts, what's going to happen, how to stay safe, in a nonjudgemental, supportive environment. And one of the reasons that works is that we're all festival-goers, all of our volunteers, it's very much a peer-led grassroots organisation. This has grown out of the festival community. It's still very much part of the festival community.

And that applies to you too. You've got a 'doctor' in front of your name, but you came into this as a member of the community.

Yeah. This was set up by Wendy Allison. She was doing it, it must have been five years ago, pretty underground, and I was helping her with some shifts. And I realised, my background, I'm a scientist, and I actually really like doing the science. Someone comes to you with something, it's an experiment to find out what it actually is. And then it's also an experiment to go, here's some advice you can use, and really give people actionable advice.

So what's happened with Know Your Stuff over the past year? Because you've become increasingly prominent, especially for an organisation that does something that presents legal challanges.

We've got two big things at the moment. One is trying to get the legal position clarified, and I'll go into that in a bit more detail later. The other is just growing. Growing really fast – by 30-50% each year in terms of the number of tests, the number of events, the number of volunteers.

In my day job, I work on research commercialisation and investment, and I'm often helping start-up companies go, hey we've got a product, everyone wants it, how do we grow this company to something that can serve that?We're a social organisation but it's exactly the same pathway. How do you put in place management, how do you scale up, how do you deliver process? How you just cope when things are just growing rapidly?

And I guess it complicates it that you've also been part of the political conversation in the past year.

Yeah. I should explain. So nothing we do is illegal, okay? We're not handling the substances, we're not giving any of the substances back. The clients, whoever comes along, they have to do all the sample handling for themselves. Obviously, our clients are in possession, so that's illegal, but hey, they're trying to look after themselves.

The risk comes in a line in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975:  Section 12 says it's a crime to provide a venue for people to take drugs. Now, does having testing on site mean that you're providing a venue? No one really knows. No one's been to court yet about this. But if someone was convicted for that, then, the festival owners, the people who put on all of this stuff for us, they potentially could get 10 years in jail. Which is crazy.

So that's where the risk is, it's for the people putting on the party. 

Yeah. It's a legal gray area and we've been working with a lot of festivals for quite a few years now. We still can't say what festivals we go to. We can't say up front that we'll be at particular festivals, we're always getting asked, will you be at X, and we kind of have to go, Well, kind of just come look for us, see if we're there. But thanks immensely to Splore, Splore's been a festival that's been the most open about having us on site and making sure that people can find us and know that this is a thing that they can do to keep themselves and their friends safe.

And if people do want to find you, you're up by Wellness.

We're in the Seaview camp site by the Wendy's Wellness Area and if you look for the Orchard Thieves bar, we're just to the right of that. Open from 10 until six o'clock. The quiet times are in the middle of the afternoon, when it's way too hot. If you come along at like five to six and go, "we're going out tonight, we've got shitloads of drugs, five different things we want to test", we'll be like, "it's 6pm, come on mate, seriously". Come before 6pm please.

And part of the reason it takes a little time is that there is counselling goes on here, isn't there? It's not just here's what you've got, off you go.

I wouldn't call it counselling. It's a discussion. Because we're very much speaking as equals. We're not going, well okay, we almost never say to someone, look, this is really dangerous, don't take it. That's not our role. We're going to find out the information about the substance itself, we're going to have a conversation with the people who've got that substance, get an understanding of their level of experience and familiarity and have a conversation about what's going to happen, how can you stay safe, how can you look after each other.

Now another conversation people might find themselves having is with the research team who are studying the impact of what you do, which is partly how you've been able, it was a nice compromise brokered by Chloe Swarbrick essentially, wasn't it? Because New Zealand First stood in the way of a law change.

If you see people walking around in pink hi-viz, that's the Victoria University team. They are doing some independent research into the attitudes to and effectiveness of drug testing. Know Your Stuff, we think it's a great thing, we think we're making a difference, we think we've got really solid evidence to show the impact of what we're doing, but we would say that, wouldn't we?  Having that independence adds weight to the political argument.

New Zealand First, they're an interesting organisation for a whole bunch of reasons. There are people within New Zealand First who are very supportive. There are people within New Zealand First who are taking a very moralistic, in honesty, okay, can anyone tell me the name of the law and order spokesperson for New Zealand First? [Silence from audience.]  Exactly. And yet this one particular guy is having a bit of an outsized impact. He turned up and said, taking drugs is bad, bad things should happen to people who take drugs, up to and including death. And I think that's pretty callous. If I had kids, it's not a situation I'd want them to be in.

But Young New Zealand First at their party conference raised up a request to reconsider their stance. I mean, I didn't even know there was a Young New Zealand First. But having met some of them, they're pretty good guys. And so New Zealand First is kind of going either way, and maybe in some sense is looking for a face-saving way of actually getting on with an effective piece of work that really does make a difference to people's lives. So hopefully that's where the independent research steps in.

We should get on to the News You Can Use. What have you been seeing this season that people should be wary of? What advice can you offer?

Okay, three things. First is, there's just a lot of MDMA in the world right now. But one pill is not necessarily one dose. We are seeing a hell of a lot of pills that are two, three, maybe even more doses than that. And our tech can give an indication of dosage, it's not great on the percentages but it can give an indication – certainly better than just chucking it down your neck. And so if people know, then they can take a half. Maybe not even that.

Other things: there have been a lot of cathinones around in previous years. Cathinones, your bath salts, eutylone,  methedrone, pentylone – we called that last summer's shitty drug, and we have seen some of that mixed in with MDMA. And the health risks from that, it will just make you very agitated, it will keep you awake, and you might want to take more. And if you do take more, then you might end up not sleeping for a very long time.

One of the theories we've got is that nobody wants to buy this stuff, okay, so what we're seeing, it's mixed in with MDMA and so if you do a reagent test – those are the little colour-changing chemicals you can buy from The Hemp Store or Cosmic – with MDMA those give a really black colour. And that indicates there's MDMA in there. That doesn't rule out anything else, and that black colour kind of covers up all of the cathinones, the bath salts. We've got a spectrometer, so we can actually detect those mixtures.

So if you have MDMA and it feels a bit odd, come to us. We can find out what it might actually be.

Third thing, caffeine. People are putting a lot of caffeine in some pills, which kind of surprises me, but then again it's cheap. And you've got these MDMA pills, they've got a lot of MDMA in them, people take them, and they're like, Oh, I don't want to dance, I just want to lie down. Cause you've taken way too much MDMA, okay? So people are putting caffeine in there so people will be able to get up and dance.

And the other mixture we keep seeing claimed, because of that, loads of people bring us pills that say, people have told them, it's MDMA and ketamine. It's not MDMA and ketamine, we've never seen that combination. It's just too much MDMA. You take it, you feel completely monged, you can't stand up. It's just too much. Take less.

Take less. Start low, go slow. You have been in the past year running testing sessions at the Drug Foundation offices in Wellington, outside the festival environment. I know that there are a lot of people in Auckland who would find that useful. Is there any prospect of that happening?

Most of the time we are not at festivals, much as we'd like to be. So we've been running monthly clinics in Wellington CBD, people can come along, test what they've got, what they're planning on taking. Part of Know Your Stuff growing is now we have Auckland teams, we have Christchurch, we have Dunedin.

We would like to have monthly testing at each of those venues, Auckland first. What we haven't got is a venue. And we would love to find somewhere that is relatively central, has a waiting area, and then a fairly private testing area, that's accessible evenings or maybe Saturday afternoons. So if you know of any venues, please come and find us and we'll have a conversation.

Hopes for the future. You want that law change, don't you?

We want the law change. Because then we can be entirely open, and if you come and find us and you look for our signs, they've got the happy-face-sad-face logo on them. It doesn't say, "Bring us your drugs." I would love to have a great big sign, a big flashing sign that says "Bring us your drugs," okay? We would like to be really open and be able to publicise in advance that we'll be at festivals.

The other thing we would like is funding. We run entirely off donations. And if you think about how much money we are saving the country and the health services, if we can avoid even just one helicopter trip, then that would pay for another spectrometer for us. But New Zealand's just pretty crap at funding preventative health care. And I think that's a broader problem than just Know Your Stuff.

Do you think the fact that you now seem to be a key part of the information environment is going to help? Because clearly the health services rely on you as an early warning. Newspapers treat you as a trusted source, and run stories off it, and increasingly seem to get them right. Which hasn't always been the case, has it?

We've had a lot of good coverage from the media. Some of it's been a bit sensationalised, but that's going to happen. At the end of each day, we will catch up with the [onsite] medics.  And we will say, Look, here's what's on site, here's what you might have to deal with at three o'clock in the morning. They're always super, super grateful to have that info.

We talk with our clients and say, Okay, how is this changing your behaviour? And a lot of people say, yeah, I'm going to take less, going to take it more sensibly, going to know what to expect if I'm taking this, won't be so worried if it's kind of weird. But then they say, outside of festivals, it's actually changed my behaviour. Because I grew up in New Zealand where you just kind of necked it and waited for whatever was going to happen. They've been saying that outside of festivals, they're taking a more cautious and respectful approach to drugs. And I think that's probably a bigger win.

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