Australia’s First Sanctioned Pill Testing Trial Is Just the Beginning

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Group of friends at a festival

The resounding success of Australia’s first government-sanctioned pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra last Sunday drew a line in the sand of this nation’s harm reduction landscape.

Before it took place, the voices of those conservative forces who rallied against the trialling of a method that’s been proved saves lives around the globe may have held some credence in an unknown terrain.

However, now we’re in chartered waters. The public has been shown that free pill testing services can be provided at events without encouraging more people to partake in illicit substances. Indeed, last Sunday, the trial actually encouraged some punters to throw away their drugs.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested on the spot by laboratory-grade equipment, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided, thinking it was best not to take the chance on consuming them, after they’d received the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Drugs belonging to two revellers were actually found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant, responsible for mass overdoses in Europe. So, the pill testing service potentially saved these individuals’ lives, which is a beneficial outcome that no politician can deny.

Time to follow suit

The Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) ran the service. It’s a consortium of harm reduction organisations, including the Australian Drug Observatory, Harm Reduction Australia, DanceWize, the Noffs Foundation and Students for Sensible Drug Policies.

“We have demonstrated that you can detect dangerous drugs in real time, you can deter people from consuming them, or any other products that can cause harm in a manner in which they might cause harm,” said Dr David Caldicott clinical lead at the Australian Drug Observatory.

Dr Caldicott was the emergency doctor present in the pill testing tent on the day. He makes clear that the ACT has now moved on from other jurisdictions around the country that are still maintaining the “status quo.”

ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris announced in September last year that her government was taking the unprecedented step of allowing a pill testing service to be trialled at an event. And despite an initial setback, it’s now been shown that this bold move was a step in the right direction.

“It’s entirely up to other jurisdictions if they want to participate with us. We’d love playmates,” Dr Caldicott told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “This system of medically supervised detection and dissuasion could prove extraordinarily powerful if implemented federally.”

Protecting the punters

DanceWize coordinator Stephanie Tzanetis outlined that “Sunday’s safety testing trial was essentially an exercise to establish a proof of concept in Australia.” She added that it set a precedent which could see “health and emergency management services available for festivalgoers” expanded.

Ms Tzanetis was also involved in running the pill testing service. She’s keenly aware of the hazards that can arise at events, as she works to prevent them with DanceWize: an outreach program of Harm Reduction Victoria (HRV) that’s been providing peer services at events since the mid-90s.

“For the punters in Canberra it meant an additional health service, one that’s already used in more than 20 countries globally, was added to the festival’s already robust emergency health and wellbeing plan,” Ms Tzanetis said.

In European countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, pill testing services have been reducing the harms associated with drug taking for decades now. The European Union has even produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

Pill testing allows festivalgoers to make informed decisions about what they might be taking. It works as a black market quality assurance measure, as dealers are less likely to continue peddling dodgy drugs. And it provides health experts with information about what’s available on the streets.

Ms Tzanetis pointed out that HRV recommends a “mixed-model” approach to testing, which means services would be “available at fixed sites like health clinics, participating pharmacies, as well as mobile testing facilities that can pop-up at street drug use hot spots and music events and festivals.”

The tide is turning

ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury was one of the most vocal politicians pushing for the trial to take place. He was outside the pill testing tent on the day, speaking to those who were utilising the service. And Mr Rattenbury believes they’ll be more such trials forthcoming.

“Now that we’ve done it here in the ACT a lot of the issues that were raised beforehand have now been addressed in working through and getting this trial going,” he told the reporters on Monday. “A lot of those barriers have been broken down.”

And Sunday’s trial has prompted federal politicians from both major parties to call for pill testing trials to be held in other states. Coalition backbencher Warren Entsch threw his support behind the trial and questioned how many more deaths need to take place before more services are available.

Labor senator Lisa Singh told the ABC that if Australia is going to be serious about harm reduction, then these facilities must be available at festivals.

The roll out of pill testing services has been part of the Australian Greens official policy since late 2016.

Removing the blinkers

According to Ms Tzanetis, one of the major barriers stopping a pill testing trial taking place in this country in the past has been when the debate has simply been reduced to the argument, “what kind of message are we sending if we tolerate a drug testing service?

“However, if you’re someone who favours compassionate, common sense, and evidence-based approaches to this complex subject, namely drug use, the scope of debate and controls applied needs to progress past regulations designed to send messages,” she stressed.

Now that the ACT has demonstrated what can be done, the harm reduction advocate believes that if more jurisdictions “get over this ideological hurdle and prioritise health over criminalising the people who use drugs” more testing trials can take place.

And Tzanetis states that once these services are rolled out in other states and territories “an inter-agency drug database” could be established that would allow for the collected information about illicit substances be shared and an early warning system be implemented.

In the time of prohibition

Alcohol is the drug that authorities have permitted to be lawfully used in Australia. There are still harms associated with the substance that can often led to violent behaviour and ultimately cause serious illnesses. However, there are no questions about the contents of the products available.

A 2016 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report found that per capita Australian adults are leading the world in MDMA consumption. But, at present, there are no quality controls. When a person drops a capsule at a music festival, they have no way of knowing if it could prove fatal.

“We will build on this, and our expertise will grow, and will be ready to share it with anyone in Australia who wants to take harm reduction to the next level,” Dr Caldicott said of the road that lies ahead.

“In the end, it’s about getting young people home safely,” he concluded. “We can berate them for their life decisions, after we’ve kept them alive.”

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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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