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Reducing drug harm means admitting, for most of us, drugs are harmless

Recent fentanyl overdoses in Wairarapa have sparked discussions on harm reduction around drug-use.

Criminologist and Know Your Stuff chief executive Wendy Allison says the majority of people who use drugs are not misusing them.

“We know that the Misuse of Drugs Act labels all use as misuse,” she said.

“But the reality is that if we care about harm, then somewhere between 85 and 97 per cent of people who use drugs on a regular basis are not harmed by them in any significant way.

“So the vast majority of drug use is not misuse, and it’s not harmful.”


Allison says her ideal situation would be a change in drug laws recommended by the Law Commission in 2010.

“One of the first [recommendations] was to repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act and replace it with legislation administered by the Ministry of Health,” she said.

“We’ve had 50 years of punishing people and criminalising people and driving drug-use underground and saying “just don’t do it”.

“We’ve got more people using drugs than ever before, and more people being harmed by drugs than ever before.

“So the Misuse of Drugs Act doesn’t reduce use, it doesn’t reduce harm. It’s time for something different, let’s just do that.”

Allison’s stark claims are borne out by recent events. Wairarapa recently saw 12 fentanyl overdoses in a 48-hour period, due to it being sold as cocaine and methamphetamine.

One week later in the Tararua District, another man was found overdosing on fentanyl. Officials expect the drug-spiking to be from the same batch.

The NZ Drug Foundation has stated it is “nothing short of a miracle” that there were no fatalities among Wairarapa’s fentanyl victims. That’s because fentanyl is normally used in much smaller amounts than the drugs victims were consuming.

“The concern is that people will take that larger dose thinking it’s cocaine or methamphetamine, and then they will have a significant overdose of fentanyl,” Allison said.

Carterton Mayor Greg Lang issued a warning to residents urging the public to “check on friends and whānau to make sure they are aware of this issue and not to be afraid to call an ambulance if you or a friend become unwell after using a synthetic drug”.

Allison said a lot of people are nervous about being busted by the drug checks.

“No, we’re not the cops and we’re not about to arrest them,” she said.

“We don’t actually care about that stuff. We just want them to not die.”

Allison says illegality has caused considerable confusion around drug-testing and the drugs themselves.

“Often the first thing that happens is [teens] will try it, and discover that they haven’t grown an extra head or suddenly become addicted to heroin because they had a puff on a joint.

“And then they will go, ‘well, that was actually kind of fun. I enjoyed myself. None of the things that my parents told me would happen, have happened. So what else are they lying to me about?’

“The reality is most of our clients are not taking drugs to escape.

“Drugs, on some occasions, enhance an enjoyable experience. For example MDMA, a night out dancing is enhanced for most people by taking this drug.”

In terms of problematic drug-use patterns, Allison says it’s related to people not understanding the scientific facts about drugs and how they work inside the body.

“A number of our clients who are experimenting with drugs at a young age, teenage people, are not aware that MDMA is a substance that should only really be taken once every 4 to 6 weeks.

“It actually takes your body time to recover the brain chemicals that are required for MDMA to work, and that in the meantime you’re going to experience certain things in your mind because those chemicals have been depleted.

“People don’t know this because nobody tells them about using MDMA safely. They just say don’t use it.”

Future Leaders youth coach Tara Robinson finds some of her clients in Wairarapa use cannabis, Panadol and pharmaceuticals to self-medicate, rather than for fun.

“Being open with it is the only way to learn and to be safe with what you’re doing,” she said.

“The biggest motivations we find with doing drugs, particularly here in the Wairarapa with the young youth, is escapism, as well as trends, and anxiety.

“The overwhelming anxiety is really leading to the use of cannabis.

“People self-medicating; they don’t necessarily feel good on drugs prescribed by doctors, so they think this is the next best solution.

“The other big motive we find is parental involvement, so families whose kids are born into drugs.”

Robinson says that the recent introduction of spot-testing students and sniffer dogs in Wairarapa schools won’t help, but involvement with harm-reduction agencies will.

“[Drug use] is just a fact, and it’s about how we deal with it safely.”

The Drug Foundation hosted pop-up testing facilities in Masterton and Carterton last week. Otherwise, Wairarapa residents wanting to test their drugs can buy fentanyl test strips in person and online at the NZ Needle Exchange for $2 each.

Re-agent tests are available online at the Hemp Store Aotearoa and DanceSafe for testing other substances like MDMA.

Police recommend using highalert.org.nz, where people can source fentanyl test strips to check if a substance contains fentanyl.

Allison recommends psychonautwiki.org, tripdatabase.com and erowid.org for understanding the “safe” dosages involved in any recreational drug.

More information on drug-checking events, harm reduction and home-test-sourcing is also available online, at thelevel.org.nz.

public interest journalism ellie

Ellie Franco
Ellie Franco
Ellie Franco is Wairarapa’s Local Focus video journalist. She regularly covers in-depth stories on arts, culture, people, health, and the occasional pup.

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