Despite initial hurdles, it can now be said that two government-sanctioned pill testing trials have taken place in the ACT. And by all accounts, the second, held last Sunday, was a resounding success. Not only did it prove that the first was no one off, but it showed that services are set to improve.
Just like the last, this year’s trial took place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival. And it was run, yet again, by Pill Testing Australia, formerly STA-SAFE. This year, 234 festivalgoers took advantage of the service, making sure that they knew the contents of the drugs in their possession.
There were 171 samples taken on the day. The main substance that was identified was MDMA. And seven samples were found to contain the substance n-ethylpentylone, which has been linked to a number of overdose deaths and mass-casualty incidents around the globe.
The patrons in possession of the potentially-lethal drugs all disposed of them in the amnesty bins provided, after receiving the test results. This means that the Pill Testing Australia crew potentially saved the lives of seven young Australians.
And no one could trumpet the often-heard rebuke that having this service available was somehow encouraging substance use, when, in actual fact, less attendees took drugs. Indeed, in NSW, with no one to warn them, those who binned their dangerous drugs, would have unwittingly downed them.
The proof is in the testing
“There’s not a lot to say negative about it,” said Dr David Caldicott. “We doubled the number of products we tested. We doubled the number of people who came to seek advice. We were able to talk to over 230 young people about their drug consumption habits.”
Dr Caldicott is the emergency consultant at Canberra’s Calvary Hospital emergency department. And it was his second year as the attending doctor on site. Following the trial on Monday morning, he was completely chuffed about its success.
The tireless pill testing advocate told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that while the festival had 20,000 attendees, there was only one precautionary ambulance carry for an ingestion, which is almost unheard of at a festival of its size.
The trial staff worked closely in conjunction with ACT medical services. “As well as, with our colleagues from the ambulance service. And we helped them assess several overdoses toxicologically at the point of care,” Dr Caldicott recalled.
The cost of not checking
The Canberra trial followed on yet another event tragedy, which this time occurred at the Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival in Queensland over Easter. The bodies of 24-year-old Dassarn Tarbutt and 22-year-old Ebony Greening were found in a tent on the Monday morning of the long weekend.
Police said there were no suspicious circumstances, and they were investigating possible drug overdose. Just like all other jurisdictions in the country beside the ACT, the Queensland state government has a no pill testing policy.
Party drugs like MDMA are outlawed in this country, but the reality is young people will to continue to take them. And while the production of these drugs is left up to black marketeers using no quality control measures, those who partake in them are often playing a game of Russian Roulette.
“Increasingly, we’re going to be able to compare jurisdictions that have pill testing and those that don’t,” Dr Caldicott continued, adding that successfully reducing harms at events like festivals is not just about pill testing, as it’s a combination of measures that include that harm reduction approach.
And according to the Doc, a major impact the addition of pill testing is having in the ACT, is it’s opened up a frank dialogue about illicit substances as a health issue. “We’re beginning to be able to have that conversation from a health perspective, rather than an ideological one,” he explained.
Dragging the pollies over the line
Meanwhile, in a state called NSW, premier Gladys Berejiklian has shifted in her position ever so slightly. She announced mid-last week that she has now instructed her inquiry into the drug ice to also evaluate the merits of pill testing.
While many locals collectively rolled their eyes and sighed, “Yet, another delaying tactic,” Dr Caldicott was a little more positive about the development, explaining that the head of the ice inquiry actually turned up last weekend to attend their pill testing demonstration.
However, he added, “The evidence to implement pill testing is already present. And it’s just a shame that the delays are political and no other ideology.” And he asserted that as far as the medical profession is concerned, the proposition is sold.
The Australian Medical Association supports pill testing, along with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. And these are just a few of over a dozen industry bodies that have thrown their weight behind this harm reduction intervention.
The festival reduction approach
And even though Berejiklian has instructed her inquiry to investigate pill testing, its seem quite a futile venture, when you factor in that her office released a statement last week explaining there’s “no change in the premier’s position, which is opposition to pill testing”.
And it should be remembered that this is the same politician, who, when drug-related deaths began increasing in this state last year, called for an inquiry into festival safety and specifically warned the panellists that they weren’t to consider pill testing at all.
And further down the track, as the count grew as high as five young deaths caused by drugs at NSW festivals, Berejiklian decided she was going to implement a policy so restrictive that it threatened to wipe out the entire festival industry. Although, she reneged at the last minute due to backlash.
Sharing the wealth
Along with further trials, Dr Caldicott explained that Pill Testing Australia will be looking at establishing the nation’s first permanent testing site, as most overdoses “occur outside the festival world”. And he added that this country has a lot of catching up to do with Europe.
Beginning with the Netherlands in 1992, a number of European countries have been utilising pill testing since that decade. Dr Caldicott’s testing group has now partnered with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse, and it will be able to share in their wealth of expertise.
And in the meantime, Pill Testing Australia still has its Golden Ticket Offer up for grabs, which means for any jurisdiction around the country that contacts them and inquires about hosting a trial, it’ll receive the first one on the house.
“At the moment, we’re pretty convinced down here that we’re running the safest music festivals in Australia,” Dr Caldicott concluded. “We’ll look at what we found this year and see how we can improve on that. And we will certainly start deploying more tech, more frequently.”
Pill Testing Australia is currently raising $100,000 to help roll out pill testing trials in other Australian jurisdictions. If you’d like to help them save lives, you can donate here.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.