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


Recent fentanyl overdoses in Wairarapa have sparked discussions about reducing harm from drug use.

Criminologist and Know Your Stuff Executive Director Wendy Allison says the majority of people who use drugs don’t abuse them.

“We know that the Misuse of Drugs Act qualifies any use as abuse,” she said.

“But the reality is that if we care about harm, then between 85 and 97 percent of people who regularly use drugs experience no significant harm from it.

“So the vast majority of drug use is not abusive and 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 Department of Health,” she said.

“We’ve spent 50 years punishing and criminalizing people, driving drug use underground and saying ‘don’t do it.’

“We have more people using drugs than ever before, and more people being harmed by drugs than ever before.

“So the law on drug abuse doesn’t reduce consumption, it doesn’t reduce harm. It’s time to move on, let’s do it.

Allison’s stark assertions are borne out by recent events. Wairarapa recently saw 12 overdoses of fentanyl over a 48-hour period, due to its sale as cocaine and methamphetamine.

A week later, in Tararua district, another man was found overdosing on fentanyl. Officials expect the drug doping to come from the same batch.

The NZ Drug Foundation said it was “nothing short of a miracle” that there were no deaths among Wairarapa’s fentanyl victims. This is because fentanyl is normally used in much lower amounts than the drugs abused by victims.

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

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

Allison said a lot of people were nervous about being stopped by drug checks.

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

“We don’t really care about that stuff. We just don’t want them to die.

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

“Often the first thing that happens is [teens] will try and find that they didn’t grow an extra head or suddenly get addicted to heroin because they had a puff on a joint.

“And then they’ll say, ‘well, that was kind of fun. I enjoyed it. None of the things that my parents told me would happen happened. So what else are you lying to me about? -they ?

“The reality is that most of our clients don’t take drugs to get away.

“Drugs, on some occasions, enhance a pleasurable experience. For example, MDMA, a dance party is improved for most people by taking this drug.

In terms of problematic patterns of drug use, Allison says it has to do with people not understanding the scientific facts about drugs and how they work inside the body.

“A number of our clients who experiment with drugs at a young age, teenagers, don’t know that MDMA is a substance that really should only be taken once every 4-6 weeks.

“In fact, it takes time for your body to recover the brain chemicals needed for MDMA to work, and in the meantime, you’re going to feel certain things in your mind because those chemicals have been depleted.

“People don’t know because nobody tells them to use MDMA safely. They just say don’t use it.

Future Leaders youth coach Tara Robinson finds that some of her clients at Wairarapa are using cannabis, Panadol and pharmaceuticals for self-care rather than for fun.

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

“The main motivations we find in drug use, especially here in Wairarapa with young people, are escapism, as well as tendencies and anxiety.

“Overwhelming anxiety really leads to cannabis use.

“People medicate themselves; they don’t necessarily feel well on the drugs prescribed by doctors, so they think that’s the next best thing.

“The other big reason we find is the involvement of parents, so families whose children were born into drugs.”

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

“[Drug use] is just a fact, and this is how we treat it safely.

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

Reagent tests are available online at Hemp Store Aotearoa and DanceSafe to test for other substances like MDMA.

The police recommend using highalert.org.nzwhere people can get fentanyl test strips to check if a substance contains fentanyl.

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

Further information on drug control events, harm reduction and home testing supplies is also available online at thelevel.org.nz.

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