After earlier announcements that pill testing would be available at the upcoming Spilt Milk music festival, it is a shock to now find out it that the pill testing trial will not be going ahead at the Canberra festival this November, with organisers saying last week that the consortium who was to run the trial has not provided the necessary authorisations in time.
It is a real blow to find out that this initiative has stumbled at the final hurdle, particularly given that the health experts willing to run the trial as part of the STA Safe Consortium, the ACT Government, and ACT Policing have been working together to get the trial ready in time for the festival. It flies in the face of strong community support for the trial, evidenced through the lodging of a petition of 1000 signatures of residents who back the trial in the Legislative Assembly last month.
Speculation is rife as to what has led to the decision not to proceed with the trial and political interference has been claimed by the ACT Greens who are strong supporters of pill testing at festivals. Reportedly, it has come out of the blue for the consortium who had been working with stakeholders including festival organisers, ACT Health and ACT Policing to make sure that the trial meets all required safety requirements and laws. ACT Police has put in place protocols to enable this to occur and has confirmed that no laws will be broken if it goes ahead. The National Capital Authority (NCA) who controls the land the festival is happening on has confirmed that there was no specified timeframe for authorisations but the festival organisers say that documentation was not provided in time. This is despite the Consortium being unclear what additional documentation is required. The NCA denies political interference, but the Canberra Liberals who are opposed to the trial did write to their federal counterparts (while not receiving a reply) and appear to be taking credit for the trial not going ahead, with a tweet late last week congratulating Jeremy Hanson MLA for intervening.
It is hard to understand why this sensible harm minimisation strategy is mired in so much controversy and has been so difficult to get up and running. Despite some claiming that pill testing is tantamount to peddling drugs, there is no credible evidence that pill testing increases drug use, but plenty of evidence that it can play a part in keeping people contemplating taking illicit substances a safer. Pill testing has been utilised at festivals in a number of countries around the world and is about providing people with an option to find out more about the potential harmful ingredients of a drug that they have already procured and are planning to ingest. It has never claimed to eliminate harm, but provides an opportunity for medical experts to engage with a person prior to them engaging in drug taking and provide information about the specific potential harms of a particular drug. If this approach saves just one life, surely it is worth working to make it happen.
Despite the specifics of what has occurred, it does appear that once again politics has sunk the prospect of pill testing at a Canberra festival, despite the evidence of the usefulness of this strategy, community support and significant goodwill between parties responsible for making it happen. This is a time where we should be crying over Spilt Milk, given it means that a festival that will be occurring in our town is less safe than it could have been and our young people are at greater risk than they needed to be. We need to be honest and recognise that this is a time where fear, ideology, and oppositional party politics has again won the day, and we have failed to keep our young people safer.
I think it deeply concerning that pill testing at Spilt Milk will not be going ahead, and hope that we will see pill testing at future ACT festivals. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is an active member of the ACT Greens. She was a candidate for the ACT Greens in the 2016 Territory Election.