Premier Minns, Queensland Is Rolling Out Pill Testing to Save Lives. Why Isn’t NSW?

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NSW pill testing

Queensland has just embarked on the path of making pill testing, or drug checking, services legally available to constituents, which allows them to ascertain the content of the illicit substances in their possession, in order to have a clearer understanding as to any potential harms, prior to consumption.

Indeed, not only did the Miles government sign off on the state’s first pill testing service operating at last weekend’s Rabbit Eats Lettuce festival, near Warwick southwest of Brisbane, but health minister Shannon Fentiman has since announced a fixed site service will open in the state capital this month.

The service on the weekend was run by Pill Testing Australia (PTA), with Dr David Caldicott as the clinical lead. The drug samples of 257 festivalgoers were tested, and 14 people binned their drugs on content being revealed, which, as per usual, meant the service resulted in less drugs being taken.

The decision to embark on the evidenced-based harm reduction intervention that is pill testing in Queensland, comes on the back of the ACT having taken the same step back in 2018 at the Groovin the Moo festival, which too was overseen by PTA, with a fixed site service established in mid-2022.

The Queensland development is being heralded as another breakthrough lifesaving move by drug law reformists nationwide.

Yet, for those in NSW, where pill testing campaigning has been amongst the longest and most ardent, the success in the sunshine state is bittersweet, as NSW Labor premier Chris Minns is continuing the head-in-the-sand approach to illicit substances taken by his Liberal predecessors.

Progress in the north

“I want to be very clear that there is no safe way to take illicit drugs, but we can take steps to reduce harm and help people make more informed choices,” Queensland Labor health minister Fentiman said in a 3 April statement.

This is a brave and refreshing comment from a major party minister, which reflects the similar attitude taken by pioneering politicians in the Labor-Greens government in the ACT, where a series of drug harm reduction reforms, championed by Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, have taken root.

“In 2021, there were over 2,200 drug-related deaths in Australia, which is 2,200 too many,” the health minister continued in regard to a step taken down the path towards treating all illegal substances as a health issue, and not a crime. “That is why this initiative is important,” she added.

And if one is to reflect on antiquated stereotypes regarding eastern jurisdictions, which most pollies are old enough to recall, it is expected that the ACT be more progressive than NSW, however the old idea of Queensland being a Bjelke-Petersen backwater seems to have now been shattered.

The Queensland Labor Miles government and the ACT Labor-Greens Barr government have both sanctioned pill testing, which is a lifesaving service that many European governments have provided their constituents with since the 1990s, with the Netherlands kicking this off in 1992.

But here, in the jurisdiction of NSW, the Labor Minns government is following the same well-trodden path carved by the NSW Coalition Perrottet, Berejiklian and Baird governments, which is one based on the US 1980s “just say no” approach to drugs, popularised by the late first lady Nancy Reagan.

Thus spoke Dr David Caldicott

Caldicott wrote on X on Thursday, that the PTA crew had engaged with 10 percent of festivalgoers over the weekend. And he added that the provision of services was significant as it was the first in Queensland, the first at an Australian multiday festival, and the service was led by chemist expertise.

The Irish doctor is an emergency consultant and a decades-long expert on drug checking services. And he points to a key aspect of pill testing that’s often not apparent, which is that trained professionals engage with people who use drugs about their drug use often for the first time.

In a 2022 Sydney Criminal Lawyers interview, Caldicott explained that he refers to the impact of drug checking as a “healthier” approach, rather than it being “good”, as that term continues the morality debate around such services, while, in the end, pill testing saves lives “beyond good and evil”.

The PTA adviser has long spruiked the benefits of the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS), which is a massive data base in the Netherlands, that commenced in the 1990s, and stores the details of on-the-street drugs and can be used to warn the public about dangerous ones.

And the CANTest facility in Canberra, combined with the work of the PTA pill testing professionals, who use laboratory-grade equipment, are already establishing a local database, which was able to identify “Canberra Ketamine” at Rabbits Eat Lettuce, which was first detected in the ACT in 2022.

The regressive premier state

The Minns government took office in 2023, promising drug law reform, via a drug summit, just like the ground-breaking 1990s forum, with key Labor members, now ministers, calling for the shift to a health-focus on drugs, with the premier even having suggested legalising cannabis to fellow MPs.

However, last August, Minns then pulled back on his drug law reform agenda, when pressed about it by the Murdoch press, and when pill testing advocates raised the call for roll out last September, he refused, and weeks later, two men died in drug-related circumstances at a western Sydney event.

The NSW Greens has long been calling for pill testing to be trialled in NSW, with Cate Faehrmann being the key player, and the NSW Greens MLC currently has the Pill Testing Trial Bill 2023 before state parliament, and there’s strong community support calling for this health intervention.

“Crucially, we thank the patrons who accessed the service,” said Pill Testing Australia executive officer Stephanie Tzanetis on Wednesday.

“While there were no high risk substances found over the weekend,” she added, “there were some unexpected results and Pill Testing Australia will share information about those detections for the benefit of the community.”

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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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