2 May 2018

Canberra's first pill testing trial shouldn't be the last

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Pill testing shouldn’t end at Groovin the Moo.

After many false starts and speculation, a pill testing trial went ahead in Canberra last weekend at one of our largest musical festivals Goovin the moo. As most people are aware, this has been attempted a number of times, and has been controversial, despite good evidence that this is a harm reduction measure that can save lives.

Information about the outcomes of the trial is slowly emerging, but early reporting seems to point to real success. Festival goers seemed to be in little doubt that it was a good idea, with plenty of people making their way to the testing site to find out more about substances that they were considering ingesting. We now know that around 130 people accessed the service, engaging in a conversation about their drug use with a qualified health professional.

Despite some claiming this would lead to an influx of illegal drug taking, there were no reports of a spike in illegal drug use at the event, and we understand that at least some people discarded drugs after finding out what the active substances contained in pills were. Health professionals reported the detection of some very dangerous substances that were then discarded by party goers. Significantly, there have been no reports of hospitals and other health professionals providing medical assistance associated with adverse reactions after people participated in the trial. We understand that police were able to continue their usual operations and festival goers have not reported any additional surveillance or targeting of people who availed themselves of the testing facility. The trial also appears to have assisted others who didn’t participate, with onsite health professionals pointing to the usefulness of the trial in that it provided useful information about the types of drugs that were circulated at the event which assisted them responding to other people who chose not to participate in the trial and needed medical treatment. Most importantly, no one died.

Despite criminalisation and prohibition, we know that sometimes young people do decide to take drugs that are illegal. We also know that festivals are a location where young people who don’t usually use drugs may decide to take this risk. While illegal, potentially dangerous and considered a poor choice by many, the argument remains that this is not a choice that people should die for. This was brought into sharp relief a few years ago, when Australia experienced a spate of deaths at festivals.

Everyone involved in the trial – from Government, to health experts, to police, have been at pains to iterate that pill testing is not about condoning illegal drug taking. It is about a pragmatic and sensible harm reduction measure which focuses on testing the substances contained in products, providing facts about the risks, and providing the opportunity for people to discard these substances if this information shifts their assessment of the risks involved.

Detractors have suggested problems with legal loopholes and additional liability for organisers even though health professionals, government and the police have come together to solve these hurdles. In contrast to these claims, the provision of this trial shows that Australia can join the many countries around the world that have introduced this measure to keep young people safer.

This type of measure will never keep people completely safe but is one more tool to engage, provide information and support people to make choices that protect their health and wellbeing. If pill testing results in just one person thinking twice before making a poor decision that may end their life and devastate many others, surely this is a strategy we can all get behind. We will wait for the results of the trial, but the early indications are that it supported many more people to keep safer than they would have otherwise been.

I congratulate everyone involved in the trial who worked hard to introduce a sensible harm minimisation measure while resolving potential legal barriers. I think we should thank the government, police, health professionals and festival promoters that came together to develop an approach to harm minimisation. Now that we know it can work, I hope we will see pill testing as a regular feature of music festivals, both here and around the country. What do you think?

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