As NSW Refuses to Save Teenage Lives, NZ Legalises Pill Testing Nationwide

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Pill testing

New Zealand became the first nation to officially legalise pill testing, or drug checking services, on 1 December, as the government passed a bill enshrining the harm reduction intervention in law.

The move comes just a week after a bill proposing the same for NSW was shot down in state parliament.

Pill testing is a tried and trusted method that provides individuals with the details of the contents of black-market drugs.

Since the early 1990s, various organisations have been providing drug checking services in numerous European nations, although these continue to operate in a legal grey area.

Laws permitting the trialling of pill testing throughout New Zealand were passed last December.

NZ health minister Andrew Little announced they’d be made permanent in April, while, on Wednesday, he noted that in the interim lives had been saved and drug-taking behaviours altered.

Five young people died after taking drugs at NSW events over the 2018-19 summer music festival season. And despite the majority of Australians wanting to see these lifesaving services available nationwide, the Perrottet government continues to walk the conservative “just say no” to drugs line.

A chance lost

NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann’s Pill Testing Bill 2019 was debated in the state upper house last week.

“Let us hope that in the coming months and years young people are able to access more information than they could two years ago,” said Faehrmann, just before the vote was taken, as she referred to the young people who died in drug-related circumstances at recent festivals.

“Because, unfortunately, they did not have the information that they needed then to stop them losing their lives. That is what this bill is about. This bill is about saving lives.”

Yet despite the loss of lives, and recommendations for pill testing to be established coming from the NSW coroner and the state inquiry into the drug ice, the bill was voted down 32 against with only 6 for.

The MLCs who consider those who partake in illegal party drugs should have the option to avoid dying as a result of taking them consist of Faehrmann, the Greens’ Abigail Boyd and David Shoebridge, the AJP’s Emma Hurst and Mark Pearson, as well as Independent Justin Field.

Right after its establishment in October, the Perrottet government rejected civil society calls to roll out pill testing trials.

Indeed, back in 2019, when he was still treasurer, premier Dominic Perrottet stated that the Coalition insists “there is no safe way in taking drugs”, and it’s concerned that pill testing is a move towards decriminalising drugs.

Drug decriminalisation is another evidence-based policy that’s well acknowledged as preserving lives.

A capital idea

But Faehrmann’s proposal isn’t just supported by the evidence out of NZ, as, down in the ACT, Pill Testing Australia has carried out two successful trials at the 2018 and 2019 Groovin the Moo festivals, which saw punters at both events choosing not to take drugs that were shown to be toxic.

In this year’s budget, the ACT government further allocated funds to set up and run a 6 month trial of the pill testing services that will be located at a fixed site in Canberra.

Pill testing allows people to have illicit substances tested by medical professionals using laboratory equipment. It has been shown to prevent people taking drugs rather than promote them to. And the identification of dodgy drugs allows authorities to warn the entire community against taking them.

But the Perrottet government, and the successive NSW governments that have proceeded it over the last two decades, have simply buried their heads in the sand, as the politicians of both major parties prefer NSW police to patrol youth events with sniffer dogs, and to apply strip searches.

On releasing the landmark coronial report into drug-related deaths at festivals, deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame warned in late 2019 that the evidence strongly suggests that drug dogs and strip searches heighten the risks around drug use as they promote dangerous drug-taking practices.

Image: CEBIT Australia – Day 2, The Hon Dominic Perrottet MP by CEBIT Australia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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