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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  1. Brettthereluctantpharmacist

    It’s good that common sense has prevailed in this instance. If it saves the life of one person, it will all be worth it. It’s a shame that it has come too late for some people and families … including one of our colleagues 🙁

  2. karina

    They will still die… Seriously, even pharmacists are taking this stuff. There comes a point when you have to realize they are taking it for the thrill of maybe something going wrong. Listing the components will only make it more exciting.

    • Rob

      People don’t take drugs for the “thrill of maybe something going wrong”. They may not care too much that something may go wrong but that’s not why they take it. Its uninformed attitudes like this that is driving drug policy in Australia and why we are doing so poorly at it. People take drugs to get high. There may be lots of reasons why they want to get high but they aren’t doing it in the hope they’ll end up psychotic or dead, that’s a whole separate pathology there. People will get high with whatever they can get their hands on but will generally choose the safest practical option. If they take something unsafe and end up in ED would it be better to know what they have taken or have the medical staff acting blind? Any way we can make it safer has got to be a good thing and I often wonder at the reasons behind our drug policy that is skewed towards increasing harm for drug takers and creating massive profits for organised crime. Look at the calibre of the people running the organisations who are trying to change drug policy in Australia and compare that to the idiots actually making the decisions and tell me who’s opinion would you trust. I honestly cant see a valid reason why pill testing is a bad idea and would welcome a differing opinion by someone who knows what they are talking about.

      • karina

        If they were doing it for the reasons you stated they would be taking known drugs. There are plenty of prescription drugs available on the black market that will give you a high without the risks of taking a tablet that could have anything in it. It is the game of Russian Roulette but in drugs not bullets.

        • Brettthereluctantpharmacist

          I normally like to stay relatively impartial and listen to both sides of a discussion, but sorry Karina, you are very wrong and Rob is quite right.

          • karina

            Brett what exactly are you basing your expert assessment on? Rob is speaking the well-thought out excuses that people taking on drugs provide to the healthcare professionals. Spend time with them on their own turf and this is what they are really taking unknown drugs for.

        • Andrew

          >>>they would be taking known drugs

          That’s kind of the point of pill testing. It’s a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis.

          The festival drug deaths in recent years have ALL been due to substances the user did not expect in their pill – our colleague that died purchased a pill that purported to be MDMA (a reasonably low-risk compound that causes fewer deaths than falling off ladders or horse riding) but actually had N-BOME (most probably- the police toxicologists STILL refuse to confirm). N-BOME requires a very low dose (low MG range) and has an absurdly narrow therapeutic window which makes risk so much higher.

          Had our colleague had her pill tested the results would have shown that in addition to the MDMA she expected it also contained another agent that was unknown to her. The evidence from Holland shows that close to 75% of users would not take the pill if it was shown to contain ingredients other than what was expected.

          The drugs we are familiar with are a known quantity – we know that generally they’re safe, what dose works and what is toxic, and how to treat when things go wrong. The research chemicals like BOME that work in microgram doses, are new to science let alone medicine, and are difficult to detect in toxicology screens…that’s what’s dangerous. And that is what the pill testing is looking for.

          Taking the “known drugs” is illegal too, by the way.

          • Jarrod McMaugh

            Andrew has summed it up perfectly tly.

            The thought that people are taking any substance specifically for the thrill of the risk is …. Unrealistic, to say the least.

            A large portion of people who take “pills” at festivals or similar are only taking them while at these events. Their exposure is lower, and their sophistication in selecting what they take (or who they buy from) is limited.

            Drug testing will reduce harm. There is very good evidence of this.

          • karina

            Jarrod you do realize people give false answers when providing information about drug use? If there is no record of them being a user outside of a festival they generally wont admit to it.

          • karina

            Thus why they get the prescription drugs on something called the black market… Holland isn’t Australia btw. Hard-core Australian drug users aren’t going to be warned off by the components of their drugs being known. For cautious people the drug dealers will tell them other people have already used it and they were fine. It is almost as if you all think criminals cant think their way around attempts to stop people using their products.

          • Andrew

            So you’re saying we should accept 5-10 young people dying a preventable death each year because it’s all too hard, and that death is an acceptable outcome for a bit of youthful experimentation?

            Ok, so you’ve made your position clear. Please allow the rest of us to get on with trying to stop this from happening.

          • karina

            Where did I say that? What I am saying is they will still take the drugs and will still die. How a system of duty of care will protect the participants in the drug testing side of it is something for the lawyers to make money out of when it all goes wrong. There are duty of care issues available for legal argument where the drug decisions are allowed to be made by people probably already under the influence of substances. Australia isnt Holland and to think something that worked in Holland is going to work here is beyond naive.

          • Jarrod McMaugh

            Karina, harm minimisaiton isn’t about putting criminals out of work… as much as that’s a worthy end-point, that’s not the purpose of harm minimisation.

            Safe consumption rooms, pill testing, opioid replacement – each of these things are about reducing harm to an individual, not about changing their minds or trying to “show them the error of their ways”, etc etc.

            There will always be people who consum mood-altering substances in a manner that is unsafe or illegal – this is human nature. Our purpose is to address the first of these by doing what can be done to reduce the risks as much as possible. For drug testing at festivals, the purpose is to help them make informed decisions about what they are consuming. If there are really people taking unknown substances for the thrill of taking something unknown, then these people won’t utilise the service. For those people who do utilise the service, being able to identify that the substances they purchased aren’t what they thought they were may be enough to prevent them exposing themselves to the risks.

          • karina

            It wont minimise the harm. i havent said anything about putting criminals out of work. I am telling you how the criminals will get around any hesitations of people in using the drugs. Duty of care means you cant shovel the informed decisions onus onto people that are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The duty of care will fall back on the program in any instance where the people are under the influence of anything. That is how the legal system works for informed decisions.

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