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Determination rewarded

Drug harm has taken many lives.

It has also hit the headlines in the past year, none more so than the mass-fentanyl overdose in Wairarapa.

The person leading the charge to reduce drug harm is being recognised for her years of tireless work that laid the foundation for New Zealand’s fentanyl response in June last year.

Wendy Allison, founder of community-based drug-checking service Know Your Stuff NZ [KYSNZ], was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s New Year Honours.

The appointment acknowledged years of Allison’s work in a ‘legal grey area’ offering drug-checking services, until her advocacy, evidence collection, and relationship building with New Zealand Police, universities, and music festivals led to a recent law change.

The change to the Misuse of Drugs Act at the end of 2020 saw New Zealand become the first country in the world to explicitly legalise drug-checking services.

Allison said the out-of-the-blue honour was a pleasant surprise, and coincided with the implementation of work that began in 2014 when KYSNZ was founded, and drug-checking started to pop-up at music festivals.

She said while the group was careful not to do anything explicitly illegal, she was convinced in the early days, that they would be arrested.

“No one expected us to do what we did, the laws just didn’t exist.

“I was very surprised to get as far as I did and still not get arrested, even when we went public.”

She said that, as a “middle-aged white lady and mum” she was not the typical person to “bust”, and when she went public in 2016, she found others, like her, concerned about kids’ drug use and realised parents were their biggest allies.

Allison said while the police at that time could not overtly support the service, they “left us well-alone” and recognised that KYSNZ was making the community safer.

She said the breakthrough, however, was when the Government, rather than moving to make drug checking illegal, decided to protect it by enshrining it in law.

“We were very lucky to have the support of the top data analysts in the country, and we made sure everything was supported by data.”

Allison said the evidence, backed-up by an independent government review, was clear – drug checks changed people’s behaviour.

When drugs were revealed to contain surprising ingredients, people usually chose not to consume them.

She said much of the work was behind the scenes, and while the fentanyl overdose in Wairarapa was a huge concern, it was “supremely satisfying” to see that work swing into action.

“The incident in June, triggered an early warning system to identify the problem, test the sample, and put out a national warning within 12 hours.

“All of those systems are in place because of the work we began eight years ago.

“To have a real incident and have nobody die feels a little bit surreal.”

Allison said the next step for New Zealand would be to have drug checking expand beyond festivals.

“It is a very white middle-class demographic, but we need to be reaching into communities, and towns, such as Masteron with public drug-checking.

“In terms of where drug checking goes in the future, this is the most critical thing for government funding.

“This is where the most harm occurs and where it will be the most effective.”

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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