NZ police minister Stuart Nash said last week that he thinks independent pill testing tents are “a fantastic idea and should be installed at all our festivals”. He added that a “more compassionate and restorative approach” to illicit drugs should be taken, considering the drug war “hasn’t worked”.
The minister made these remarks after he observed police testing pills that had been seized at a music festival in Gisborne. While some of these pills were found to contain no drugs whatsoever, traces of pesticides were found in others.
Mr Nash made clear that police would continue to focus on traffickers, but people who use drugs should be dealt with from a “health perspective”. And he backed up these comments on the radio the following day, stating that taking the high moral ground would lead to more hospitalisations.
Back in Australia, the many politicians are continuing to refuse to consider this harm reduction approach, despite the fact that this year’s music festival season has been a tragedy. Five people have died due to suspected overdoses since September. Four of these deaths have occurred in NSW.
Anti-pill testing crusader NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian softened her stance last week, saying she’d consider testing if she was shown evidence it works. However, she missed the opportunity to be provided with such proof last year, when she ordered her festival safety panel not to evaluate it.
Over the ditch at the cutting edge
“Once again, New Zealand politicians have shown a more open-minded and more pragmatic approach than their Australian counterparts,” said Dr Alex Wodak, who’s been at the forefront of harm reduction in this country since the 1980s.
The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president pointed out that NZ was the first country to allow women to vote, it enacted marriage equality laws before us, vaping is easily accessible there for smokers, and it will soon conduct a referendum on legalising recreational cannabis.
According to the doctor, the debate around pill testing in this country – and also vaping – is following a similar pattern to what occurred prior to the implementation of other interventions, such as methadone treatment, needle and syringe programs, and safe injecting facilities.
“Relentless and vigorous resistance continues for a long time, even though the earlier zero tolerance approach clearly has not worked, and the proposed new harm reduction approach has a compelling logic and is also supported by strong evidence,” Dr Wodak explained.
On the requirement of evidence
If Ms Berejiklian hadn’t ordered the members of her festival safety panel to look away, they could have informed her about European countries, such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Austria, that have well-established pill testing programs, some of which date back to the 1990s.
Indeed, if the premier had taken notice she would have been aware that Australia’s first government-sanctioned pill testing trial that took place in the ACT last April had prevented two attendees from taking a potentially lethal substance that was contained in their drugs.
Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that with so few deaths attributed to drugs taken at festivals absolute proof testing works is hard to come by. However, “there are many indirect indicators that pill testing reduces deaths and the number of people admitted to hospital”.
Following a tweet she posted congratulating the NZ police minister on his positive pill testing comments, former NZ PM Helen Clark sent out another tweet citing a UK study that found drug-related hospital admissions were down by 95 percent after pill testing was introduced.
Useless heavy-handed policing
“There is a growing acceptance that the spate of recent deaths of young people after taking drugs at a music event represents a failure of saturation policing and sniffer dogs,” Dr Wodak continued. And he added that the premier hasn’t called for any proof that this approach, which she relies on, works.
The failure of the law enforcement approach was evidenced at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival in September last year, as there were 194 officers deployed at that event and they failed to prevent the drug-related deaths of two young Australians.
The use of drug detection dogs at music festivals has also been widely criticised, as not only are no drugs found two-thirds to three-quarters of the time following an indication by a dog, but its deployment has also been shown to promote dangerous drug taking practices amongst punters.
At least two young Australians have died due to panic overdosing, which is when a person takes a lethal amount of drugs on spotting a drug dog. The death of James Munro at a 2013 festival was put down to his panicking at the sight of a sniffer dog and taking all of his drugs at once.
At the recent Field Day festival in Sydney, a man took something from his pocket and placed it in his mouth following a drug dog indication. Officers reacted to this potential panic overdose case, by tackling the man to the ground and trying to force him to open his mouth.
The premier’s comments regarding her willingness to consider pill testing on being shown the evidence were prompted by NSW opposition leader Michael Daley’s announcement that his party would hold a drug summit if it comes to power and pill testing would be on the agenda.
And following last year’s landside Labor victory in Victoria, it seems more than likely that NSW will have a change government after the March election. The last NSW drug summit the Labor party convened back in 1999 led to the establishment of the Kings Cross safe injecting facility.
Recently, an anonymous NSW Liberal MP told the Sydney Morning Herald that the Berejiklian’s opposition to pill testing made no sense, as the premier voted in favour of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, which has managed over 6,500 overdoses since 2001.
The one argument that Berejiklian seems to be holding onto is that pill testing is not foolproof. But, if this line of thought held, then successful harm reduction initiatives such as mandatory seat belts and helmets for bike riders would never have been implemented in the first place.
Pill testing is a given
When asked whether Australia has reached a tipping point in regard to pill testing, Dr Wodak assured that we are well passed it. And he pointed to those in the public, beyond the “usual suspects”, who are now supporting the implementation of this technique.
One example of this broadening support is former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, who said in a recent editorial that it makes no sense that a government that presides over a jurisdiction with a successful safe injecting facility won’t even consider pill testing.
“In a few years’ time, pill testing will be available in all states and territories and the politicians who held out for so long will seem as out of touch as the politicians who opposed marriage equality,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Once again, the ACT government will have led the way.”
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.