There are hopes that pop-up pill testing will return to this year’s Spilt Milk, the first festival to take place in the ACT following the decriminalisation of small quantities of illicit drugs.
Harm Reduction Australia CEO Gino Vumbaca said negotiations are currently underway with an insurer and he is “hopeful of nailing down a policy in the next few weeks”.
He said the quote was “still a lot more than we wanted to pay”, but “we’ll make it work”.
Spilt Milk will take place at EPIC in Canberra on 25 November.
Mr Vumbaca told Region Harm Reduction Australia is especially keen to return to the capital’s festivals following the deaths of two men at this weekend’s Knockout Festival in Sydney, with speculation at least one of the deaths was caused by a drug overdose.
The cause of death has not yet been confirmed, but the incidents highlight the need for better safety measures at festivals.
“Particularly after the events in Sydney over the weekend, we’re keen to have a presence in the festivals in Canberra,” Mr Vumbaca said.
“Speaking to family members who’ve lost kids reinforces our motivation,” he said.
The path to securing on-site pill testing facilities at the capital’s festivals has been difficult, with most brokers still extremely risk-averse to anything related to drugs.
Harm Reduction Australia organised pop-up drug testing at Groovin the Moo in 2018 and 2019, but when the festival returned in 2022 with plans to resume the service, the insurer pulled out at the final moment and a replacement could not be found. The story was much the same earlier this year when Harm Reduction Australia “searched all over the world” for a broker to take on their business for Groovin the Moo but was unable to find one.
When Harm Reduction Australia previously operated pop-up pill testing, the insurer had offered premiums of around $10,000. In 2023, when it sought to find a new broker, they were quoted a premium of $220,000.
Festivalgoers can still use Canberra’s fixed-site drug testing facility, CanTEST, which operates two weekly testing services from the City Community Health Centre and has previously extended its opening hours for festival weekends to accommodate heightened demand.
CanTEST previously held extended opening hours ahead of the Spilt Milk festival last year, and Mr Vumbaca said that a “huge number of people” used the testing facilities.
The ACT has long been leading the way in Australia in offering pill testing, being the first jurisdiction in the country to offer a government-backed fixed-site drug-checking service.
Most other states and territories have been averse to introducing pill testing, with Queensland the only other jurisdiction to offer it, despite backing from public health experts across the country.
Following last weekend’s festival deaths, there have been renewed calls for pill testing to be introduced in NSW.
However, speaking at a press conference on Monday, NSW Health Minister Ryan Park warned against seeing drug testing as a “silver bullet” solution.
“What I don’t want people to believe is that one thing – pill testing, for example – is going to be a silver bullet that will prevent overdoses, that will prevent deaths,” he said.
Mr Vumbaca said Harm Reduction Australia is fortunate to have the government’s backing in the ACT, making it possible to have a presence at Canberra’s festivals.
“In Canberra, we do have government support, which is critical, unlike in NSW,” he said. “The government understands that what we do is reduce the risk.
“We have support from the festivals [as well], but we need insurance,” he said.
Mr Vumbaca said demand for the services has increased considerably each year.
“Between 2018 and 2019, there was a huge jump in what we saw in demand,” he said. “People knew we were there. There was a lot more media around it, a lot more attention to drug policy.”
“People understand it’s safe.”