Pill testing approved for Canberra festival

In an Australia-first, the ACT Government will allow free pill testing to take place at a music festival this November

The ACT government has given the green light for a free pill testing service to be provided at the Spilt Milk Festival to be held in Canberra on 25 November.

Pill testing will be conducted anonymously by the organisation Harm Reduction Australia, which along with other groups including the Ted Noffs Foundation, DanceWize, Dr David Caldicott, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has been pushing for pill testing at Australian music festivals for much of the past year.

Harm Reduction Australia said the decision will save lives and reduce harms for people in the ACT.

“It will also be a decision that is welcomed by the many families and friends of people attending the festival,” said the group.

Pill testing programs currently operate in a number of countries including Austria, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and more recently in the UK and New Zealand.

Harm Reduction Australia said by following in the footsteps of overseas programs, the trial of pill testing in the ACT aims to deliver:

  • Decreased number of overdoses and adverse reactions to drugs;
  • Decreased consumption of drugs by those music festival patrons electing to have their substances tested;
  • Increased safety and amenity for music festival patrons and their families;
  • Reduced numbers at emergency departments and hospitals as a result of adverse drug reactions at the music festival;
  • Increased the level of knowledge and awareness of drug issues amongst music festival patrons; and
  • Greater engagement of people using drugs with health professionals.

Matt Noffs, CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation, hailed the announcement as a significant breakthrough.

“Even though we only began campaigning in earnest for this in 2014, this has been decades in the making,” Mr Noffs said.

“Doctors, researchers, and other health professionals have been desperately seeking ways of reducing harm at live music events.

“Death is not an acceptable punishment for young people experimenting.”

Victorian Greens health spokesperson Colleen Hartland has welcomed news.

“I am so pleased to see the ACT Government is listening to the experts and acknowledging the evidence that pill testing saves lives,” she said.

“I want to commend ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris for having the courage to take action on pill testing. It’s the right thing to do when people’s lives are at stake.”

“We’re in an era where new synthetic drugs are hitting the market each week. The reality is that people don’t know what’s in their drugs.”

“The generic ‘don’t take drugs’ message simply doesn’t work. We’ve tried it for decades and Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit drug use in the world.”

Liam Murphy from The Roaming Pharmacist, who has been an advocate for pill testing, said the decision is a huge positive.

“There has been talk for some time about this happening in the ACT and so hopefully the trial proves to be a success,” Mr Murphy told AJP.

“It’s great that this harm reduction initiative, which has been successfully implemented in Europe for years, has now been recognised by (enough) politicians to be a viable option in reducing the harms associated with drug use.

“If the roll out is successful, it has the potential to reshape the way that society as a whole deals with drugs in Australia. It would be great if proactive and engaging health professionals are able to get involved in the initiative as well. This would not only restrict it to simply reducing the harms of drugs, but also opens up the potential to open up a non-judgemental discussion between health care professionals and drug takers,” he said.

“If we, as health professionals, play our cards right this could be a great opportunity to create a range of health interventions, especially in the areas of mental and sexual health. From the people I’ve spoken to, the consensus seems to be that if you are able to have an open conversation about drug use then the communication barriers are down and it should be easier to have a productive conversation on what could otherwise be taboo topics.”

Pharmacist and harm minimisation advocate Angelo Pricolo said the move will help keep people safe but understanding the testing process is important.

“It’s one of these things that doesn’t condone the illicit use of drugs, but understands the reality that people are going to use drugs, and if we can keep them safe then I don’t have a problem with that,” Mr Pricolo told AJP.

“The key to it is understanding the scope and sensitivity of the testing so that we don’t have a false sense of security.”

President of Harm Reduction Australia Gino Vumbaca explained what the testing process might look like to ABC’s Hack program.

“There will be a short survey taken about what drugs people think they’re taking. And then there will be a very small scraping of the pill they’ll provide for testing and analysis. That normally takes about 10 to 15 minutes,” Mr Vumbaca said.

People will be able to find out, if they’re going to take a particular substance, what it is they’re actually taking, compared to what they think they’re taking.

“The composition of the substance will be analysed. It will give quite a detailed analysis of the content of that drug and the levels of the different chemicals in that drug. From there, we’ll have people there who will be able to provide feedback about what those particular chemicals are and what may be expected as a result.”

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