NSW and Victorian Labor Continue to Stall on Pill Testing, Despite Yet Another Death

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NSW Pill Testing

Shortly after being airlifted to Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, 23-year-old Antony Maugeri died of a suspected drug overdose last weekend, after having attended the Pitch Arts and Music Festival in southwestern Victoria.

The death is a reminder that the last time the Victorian premier Jacinta Allan and NSW premier Chris Minns were called on to roll out pill testing, after yet more drug-related medical emergencies at Australian music festivals, this was met with hesitancy tending toward rejection.

Allan said she was “seeking advice” on pill testing after a mass overdose, which left eight people in critical condition at an event in January, and this followed Minns’ decision to not rule out pill testing, after two men died in drug-related circumstances at a Sydney festival. But neither leader is too keen.

Stalling on pill testing was the long game employed by the Baird, Berejiklian and Perrottet-led Coalition governments of the last 10 years, while Labor leader Minns has seamlessly eased into that same role of chief blocker of pill testing.

And he’s also picked up the Liberal penchant for the drug policy position popularised by former US first lady Nancy Regan in the 1980s: the flawed “just say no” to drugs technique. And the continuing deaths and mass use of party drugs at festivals are testament to just how ineffective this is.

Meanwhile in Canberra, a fixed site drug checking service has been operating since mid-2022. And as of January, the CANTest facility had scrutinised over 1,700 samples, with no adverse effects, rather only positive outcomes, such as lowering intake as clients bin dodgy drugs after testing.

So, as it stands after the NSW premier refused to roll out testing last September, two young people have died at events, and since his counterpart in Victoria said she’d consider pill testing in January, one man has died in circumstances that may have been preventable at an event in her state.

Resistance is killing

“What on Earth are governments waiting for before allowing pill testing to be available? How many more unnecessary preventable deaths are needed?” drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak remarked on X, following the death, adding it was “typical of ridiculous resistance to drug harm reduction.”

Wodak was pivotal in seeing needle and syringe exchanges rolled out in the 1980s, averting a larger HIV/AIDS crisis amongst people who inject drugs, as well as playing a role in the establishment of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, ending an overdose crisis in Kings Cross.

And as to the doctor’s question regarding how many preventable drug-related deaths will have to occur prior to drug checking being rolled out in jurisdictions other than the ACT, the answer would appear to be quite a few.

The current campaign to see pill testing rolled out around the country commenced in late 2015, and at the time, it could be said that over the 12 months to December that year, that six young people had died in drug-related circumstances at festivals nationwide.

The resistance to the calls began with then premier Mike Baird and his police minister Troy Grant, and the pair employed the arguments against, which have been recycled ever since.

These include there being no evidence pill testing works, that the harm reduction intervention is no silver bullet, that it encourages drug use and legitimises drug dealers.

None of these arguments hold, however. No one has ever claimed that testing results in risk-free drug taking. But the experts do assert that drug checking reduces the risks and at times, prevents deaths, it allows trained staff to consult with clients and it results in people ditching their drugs.

Following the Baird government’s heated refusal to implement pill testing in the face of what was a persistent campaign, six young people died at NSW music festivals in drug-related circumstances, over the 13 months to January 2019, on then premier Gladys Berejiklian’s watch.

Berejiklian was notorious for her refusal to consider the health intervention that’s operated in parts of Europe since 1992. 

Today, there are European Union best practice pill testing guidelines, along with a massive European database on illicit drugs that periodically sends out warnings about dodgy drugs circulating in the community.

Then premier Berejiklian, however, pushed the “no evidence that pill testing works” line over the 2018-19 summer music festival season, as five young people died at events, and instead the Liberal leader almost shut down the festival industry, as a means to prevent drug-related deaths.

The proof is in the capital

ANU Professor Malcolm McLeod, a chemistry lead at CANTest, announced in January that his team of chemists had identified three previously unknown psychoactive substances circulating in the local community, via the drug checking service.

This then allowed the chemists to test the novel psychoactive substances, which are often designed to mimic the effects of standard illegal substances, such as MDMA or ecstasy. NSPs can often be circulated legally prior to being outlawed once identified or used in illegal batches for convenience.

The issue with NSPs is they can be much more toxic than the regular substance they’re designed to imitate, and services like CANTest can identify and test them, and then issue any public warning that may be necessitated, as well as notify emergency services as to what they might be dealing with.

Indeed, in late 2022, the CANTEST facility was able to avert a potential health crisis, when it sent out a public health alert about pills being sold on the street as oxycodone, when they were actually a much more highly dangerous opioid that’s easier to overdose on.

The Victorian Greens put out a statement in the wake of last weekend’s tragedy, outlining that untested pills masquerading as MDMA are currently circulating in the local community, and as the drug-related death reveals, the substance being sold as ecstasy is potentially lethal.

However, MDMA, the substance that ecstasy is supposed to comprise of, ranks close to the bottom on the scale of drug harms, when considered alongside other popularly possessed and used drugs, including legal alcohol and tobacco.

“It is devastating to hear about a young life being lost over the weekend, while the new premier sits idle,” said Victorian Greens MLC Aiv Puglielli in a statement on Monday. “Pill testing services play a crucial role in preventing this tragic loss of life.

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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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