The recent fatalities at the Defqon.1 music festival have spurred renewed calls to allow pill testing and a growing chorus of advocacy groups and politicians have argued that pill and other drug-testing will minimise harm and potentially save lives. However, despite these calls and international evidence confirming otherwise, sinking New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian continues to vehemently oppose the practice and instead plans to enforce punitive actions including potentially harsh restrictions on future music festivals in the state.
Pill (and other drug) testing is a service that allows ordinary citizens to anonymously submit illegal drug samples and receive feedback of results and counselling where appropriate. Ideally, armed with information on its contents, would-be users can make an informed decision whether to consume the drug. At Australia’s first pill-testing trial at Canberra’s ‘Groovin the Moo’ festival, pill-testing services proved to be successful. Among the eighty-five substances identified were paint and body rub, informing potential users of the severity of toxic additives found in illicit drugs. This positive outcome of averting potential fatalities is a green light for neighbouring NSW state to facilitate pill-testing sites.
Despite, the NSW Premier’s hardline stance, pill testing has operated in some form for around twenty-five years in a number of European countries including Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and France. An independent review of Australia’s Drug Strategy, conducted by Dr Andrew Groves of Deakin University, analysed trends in foreign countries that already permitted pill-testing practices. He found that in Austria, about fifty per cent of users whose drugs were tested indicated that information about the quality and purity of tested drugs influenced their decision in taking it. If presented with a negative result, two-thirds reported they would not consume their drugs and would also warn friends against consumption. In the Netherlands, the research demonstrated that that drug testing caused no increases in the use of most party-drugs.
Dr Groves concluded that pill-testing measures have been effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, and problems for drug users and the wider community. His study also supported the idea that “party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing, rather than criminal justice responses.”
In foreign countries, pill testing has allowed health and support workers to establish contact and provide advice to typically difficult-to-reach populations. It has also been useful in identifying substances users are taking as well as current markets and drug taking methods. This could potentially improve academic research and drug prevention planning. Another study conducted in Europe on drug testing revealed that the service forced the removal of illicit drugs, identified as dangerous, that were sold on the black market.
Pill testing also has a number of other benefits. It has allowed health and support workers to establish contact and provide advice to typically difficult-to-reach populations. Furthermore, the ability to monitor a vast range of substances has been useful in identifying substances users are taking as well as current markets and drug taking methods. This could potentially improve academic research and drug prevention planning.
Pill testing could have a similar impact in NSW. The most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey report in 2016 revealed that in a sample of users, ninety per cent reported seeking information about drug contents in the 12 months prior to the study. Ninety-four per cent of respondents reported they valued services that provided comprehensive, individual feedback rather than only when dangerous results were found. Many reported that they would use a drop-in service if it was available. The statistics show the positive influence drug-testing services can have on persuading young people to make rational decisions and indicate they are willing to use testing services to reduce drug-related harm.
Pill testing has received some bipartisan support in NSW. Labor backbencher and Senator, Lisa Singh has called for reform in drug law enforcement, Greens member, David Shoebridge has urged the Premier to be more open to evidence. Liberal MP, Warren Entsch believes the service provides valuable data to educate young drug users. Senator David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats has also been a prominent supporter of pill testing. Last week he slammed the NSW Premier for failing to allow pill testing and argued that the lack of services was the cause of recent deaths at NSW festivals. Among advocacy groups, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak, also declared that the Premier should have a zero tolerance for preventable deaths rather than drugs and suggested pill testing would have significantly reduced the risk of drug-related deaths.
Pill testing does not require taxpayer funding. Where non-profit groups are not available to provide the service for free, a fee can be imposed on the tickets of festivalgoers to fund it. It is likely to impose a significantly lesser cost than those currently imposed by other, unnecessary regulatory burdens as well as the taxpayer funds wasted on ineffective sniffer dogs.
Imposing illiberal and punitive policies that ban the youth of NSW from frequenting festivals is not the answer to preventing drug-related deaths. Instead, the NSW government should embrace proven international best practice and prioritise saving lives by facilitating pill-testing services.
Anjali Nadaradjane is a Research Associate with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.
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