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  • Luquin Brennan

Volunteering for Know Your Stuff

Checked by Luquin Brennan (they/them)

I started checking people’s drugs when I was eighteen and naive. A friend of mine joined KnowYourStuffNZ (KYSNZ) a bit before me, said something along the lines of “Hey Luquin, check this out, I think it’d interest you”. And it did. I went along to the first training session with a couple of friends, but they both dipped soon afterwards. At my first “clinic” for drug-checking I felt underqualified, in my shiny yellow shirt. The hardest thing that I’d taken was alcohol—would I be expected to provide advice to people on cocaine? Fortunately, all the more experienced volunteers had my back when there were unusual results.

KnowYourStuffNZ started 2015. By bringing drug-checking equipment into raves in the middle of nowhere, KYSNZ filled a niche. Drug-checking organisations are not new, however most of them previously have operated in a legal grey area, with volunteers at festivals risking arrest to keep people safe. KYSNZ operated like this until 2020, when they were permitted to check people’s drugs for festival season. This was then extended with the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2021, meaning KYSNZ and other drug-checking agencies such as the Needle Exchange could operate year-round. This act permanently legalised drug-checking in New Zealand, a world first. 

A couple of summers ago I had the privilege of going to Taniwha’s Den, a music festival in the Wairarapa, to check people’s drugs. I got a lift with a generous fellow volunteer and threw myself into a festival full of people I didn’t know, headlining artists whose music I hadn’t heard. It truly was an experience. Because it was my first overnight music festival, I came heinously underprepared in terms of food and booze. Fortunately, I brought a bunch of cash to buy food, but no alcohol was sold on site. At night, I felt like the only non-drinking person in a mass of swaying people. Swirling visuals were projected onto the bare rockface, and loud music thickened the air. During the day weather was sweltering, and the most activity I could muster was walking from under the trees to by the river and back again. Checking drugs in a tent was so different from the controlled environment of the indoor “clinic”. The tent was musty, the specs were set up on trestle tables and powered by car batteries. A sign outside the tent proclaimed: “Ask us about nangs!” Everyone seemed more easy-going. 

The substance Wellington KnowYourStuffNZ checks most is MDMA, also known as ecstasy, a stimulant which makes people more euphoric and affectionate. Other things commonly brought to us include cocaine, ketamine, and acid. We have to reagent test acid—for other substances we put them on the ‘spec’ (a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer if you want the exact details). This is a piece of equipment which shoots a beam of infrared light into a substance, captures its spectrum (a kind of chemical fingerprint), and sends it to a laptop. The computer has databases filled with the spectra of thousands of substances, from MDMA to caffeine to sucrose to “LIPO drop powder (red)”. It can then compare the spectra of the substance which has been scanned to the database, and find the closest matches. Sometimes it’s what people assume, and the client leaves relieved and satisfied. Other times it’s just filler, another drug, or something entirely new.

After a drug has been checked, the results are communicated back to the client, plus advice on the safest method of taking the drug. I find this one of the trickiest parts of volunteering, especially if the result is something rare like 2C-I. Then, if the drug is what the client expected, KYSNZ volunteers will return it to the client. If it’s something that the client didn’t expect, they can choose to either keep or destroy it. When something new and potentially dangerous comes up, KnowYourStuffNZ can send it to Environmental Science Research (ESR), a research lab which has more sophisticated equipment. ESR can find out more information about a new substance such as its toxicology.

Last year I did shift lead training, although it might be a while before I become a shift lead proper. Shift leads deal with setting up the spectrometer, any unusual substances that come up, as well as difficult conversations with clients. I’m not quite confident on that last part, although I’m trying (you may have seen me on the stall at O-Week). I’ve really enjoyed volunteering at KYSNZ at its allowed me to step out of my comfort zone, do chemistry, and talk to new people. If you’re out partying, I’d hugely recommend getting your drugs checked. It’s free, confidential and lessens the likelihood of having an unpleasant time.


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