It was a kooky idea, but the person who had it deserves a medal.
So said Dr Jarrod Gilbert, Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury, about testing wastewater for drugs.
“We now have an accurate picture of drug use in New Zealand – where and what drugs are being consumed,” he told the NZ Herald. “We can also track consumption trends over time. This is not just a curiosity, this science from the sewers has a range of important policy implications.”
In December, the New Zealand Drugs in Wastewater Programme (DIWWP) won the Team Award at the 2022 Science New Zealand Awards, with a presentation at Parliament.
The team, created in 2017, includes New Zealand Police, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and the National Drug Intelligence Bureau (NDIB).
And the person that Dr Gilbert suggested deserved the medal is DIWWP founder and NDIB Manager John O’Keeffe (Jock).
In January, Jock received further recognition – still not a medal, but a Commissioner’s Commendation for professionalism, dedication and leadership shown in the establishment of the DIWWP.
“There was no way to test drug use in New Zealand, so this was a real breakthrough for us,” says Jock.
“The programme was formed when NDIB wanted to gain an understand of drug consumption in New Zealand as we had no evidence-based data to understand patterns of use, prevalence of use and total consumption.
“We looked at overseas models and then approached ESR to develop specific surveillance methods to detect drugs in wastewater.
“We also work very closely with city council wastewater facilities who play a vital role in collecting the samples.”
The term ‘wastewater testing’ has become more familiar in recent years, as this once-novel form of surveillance became a key tool in detecting the spread of COVID-19.
Wastewater testing for drugs, with its focus on illicit drug use at a community rather than individual level, aligns with the approach of treating drug use as a health issue.
The insights arising from this programme are used by Police and partner agencies as an evidence base to show where additional support and resources are needed.
“Demand for drugs in wastewater testing has continued to grow, resulting in increased funding being secured to expand the programme,” says Jock.
“The team are appreciative of the efforts of the participating city councils, without which the DIWWP would not be possible.”
Science New Zealand is an incorporated society funded by its members: the seven Crown Research Institutes and Callaghan Innovation. The Awards aim to showcase world-class science and research led by New Zealanders and celebrate the people creating ideas that are useful, usable and benefit of all New Zealand.