As the summer season of music festivals begins, the push for pill testing is more urgent than ever. While most state governments continue to spout a zero-tolerance approach, and refuse to even trial pill testing, the mounting evidence about its potential lifesaving benefits cannot be denied.
The tragic death of five young festival goers during the summer of 2018-19 may have been avoided if pill testing had been available to them. They ingested either toxically high levels of MDMA and/or the toxic substance n-ethylpentylone that was contained in their ecstasy pills.
Pill testing, which was carried out in the ACT during the Groovin the Moo festival in April this year, found these same combinations of chemicals in the pills of seven young people that were tested. They promptly discarded their pills, potentially saving their own lives in the process.
This was the second year running that the ACT allowed a pill testing trial to take place. The findings of the trial, conducted by Pill Testing Australia (PTA), have been positive. Using harm minimisation principals, PTA found that most people responded well to testing, waiting for up to 20 minutes for the testing.
Counsellors, doctors and pharmacists were on site and provided education to festival goers about safe drug use. The ACT state government say they will continue to support harm reduction strategies, including pill testing.
There is some debate among toxicologists and medical professionals about the validity of pill testing. However, many of the experts that doubt its accuracy concede that the value of face-to-face contact to provide education and harm minimisation information to users can influence use and in itself may save lives.
Internationally pill testing has been in place in a number of countries for years. In the Netherlands pill testing has been up and running since 1992 and there are 14 different pill testing organisations throughout Europe.
In the case of the Netherlands one-to-one counselling sessions are offered to discuss the risks of illicit drug use and to hand out reading material about harm reduction. In all the countries where pill testing operates there has been no evidence showing increased drug use.
Recently a coroner from NSW, Harriet Grahame, made major law change recommendations after investigating the death of six young people who died from drug overdose over two summers at music festivals.
Grahame described pill testing as “simply an evidence-based harm reduction strategy that should be trialled as soon as possible in NSW”. She describes the evidence for pill testing as “compelling”.
Across the country multiple peak bodies and organisations ranging from Ambulance unions, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the Pharmaceutical Society, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and music industry leaders have called for pill testing.
Polls show that public support for pill testing is on the rise. But arrogantly, in the face of all this, a number of state governments continue to refuse to consider it. The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, remains steadfast in her resistance to pill testing or any harm minimisation approaches. Her reasoning is that testing will “give the green light to take (these) drugs”.
In Tasmania, Health Minister Michael Ferguson, has stated that pill testing “can send a dangerous and risky message”. In Victoria Daniel Andrews’ government along with the Victoria Police remain opposed to pill testing stating it gives out the wrong message and gives users the impression that their pills are “safe”.
Rather than treating drug use as a health issue, many in the major parties are still clinging to their failed criminalisation approach. We can’t wait for them to see the light. Lives are at risk. We need to work now to force change onto the political agenda.
A bold community campaign that included trade unions, student unions and health organisations could have a big impact if – rather than the just lobbying of politicians – it organised people on the streets.
The issue of pill testing would gain more support still if it was linked to the need for more investment in public health and education, as well as the need to fight for a world where young people are guaranteed a decent future.
By a public health care worker