Pill testing needs to be considered: experts

The Defqon. 1 event in Sydney. Image: Defqon. 1 via Facebook.
The Defqon. 1 event in Sydney. Image: Defqon. 1 via Facebook.

Harm minimisation stakeholders have condemned the NSW Government’s hardline response to two drug deaths on the weekend

Two people have died and two more were critically ill in hospital after attending the Defqon. 1 hardcore techno, house and trance music festival in Penrith over the weekend.

NSW Police confirmed that the 23-year-old man and 21-year-old woman both died in Nepean Hospital after they collapsed at the festival and multiple reports of suspected drug overdoses were made to emergency services.

Police say that a 19-year-old man and 26-year-old woman remain critically ill while another 13 people attended Nepean Hospital for treatment for drug-related issues, and up to 700 people sought assistance from medical staff at the event.

Mainstream media report that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has called for the event to be banned, and has ruled out considering pill testing – such as that trialled at the ACT leg of Groovin the Moo earlier this year – as a means of minimising harm to concert-goers.

“I never want to see this event held in Sydney or New South Wales ever again — we will do everything we can to shut this down,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“Anyone who advocates pill-testing is giving the green light to drugs. There is no such thing as a safe drug and unfortunately when young people think there is, it has tragic consequences.”

National president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Tony Bartone told Sky News’ Ashleigh Gillon that a number of solutions to festival drug overdose need to be considered.

“We need to be clear that we have proper coordinated clinical trials to look at the evidence, to see if pill testing does have a role to play,” Dr Bartone said.

“We can’t continue to just use a law enforcement solution after what’s happened on two episodes over the weekend. We have a serious problem, it is out of control, and we need to have a look at a raft of solutions in terms of dealing with these issues.

“Shutting down the festival, obviously, will reduce the incidents like the weekend, but there’ll be other opportunities, other venues, other occasions where pills of dubious origin will be taken by young and unsuspecting drug users. “

Instead, young people need to be better informed about the potential harms of taking illicit drugs, and pill testing could be one avenue to do so.

“The actual episode of testing the pill is not just saying: ‘Oh, that’s an okay drug. You can take that’,” Dr Bartone said.

“It’s about an opportunity to try and inform the person, or persons involved, about the dangerous consequences and try to get an opportunity to give them education and access to rehabilitation in terms of trying to reduce their drug dependency.”

Kieran Palmer from the Ted Noffs Foundation appeared on The Today Show and said that the Premier’s response to the deaths is a “head in the sand” reaction based on “fear, rather than fact”.

“Shutting down the festivals, getting tough on drugs, telling kids to just say ‘no,’ doesn’t work,” he said.

“It doesn’t change behaviour, it doesn’t change anything at all. And yet we have initiatives such as pill testing at festivals that we know can influence people’s decision-making in very positive ways, it’s madness that we’re not considering these things.

“This is a health-related issue and that’s the direction that we need to come at it.

“I don’t like the idea of young people taking these mystery substances and just hoping for the best.”

He cited international and Australian data which shows that pill testing encourages young people to make better decisions and perhaps discard their drugs.

A number of harm minimisation proponents took to social media to counter Ms Berejiklian’s stance.

The STA-Safe consortium earlier this year reported the Groovin the Moo pill testing pilot as a success which showed some drugs tested included unexpected ingredients such as the potentially deadly N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone).

Harm Minimisation Australia is hoping to raise funds to roll out more pill testing trials at festivals around the country.

Last year ACT Greens leader and drug law reform proponent Shane Rattenbury suggested that pill testing should not stop at music festivals and could take place within the community, including potentially in pharmacies.

UPDATE: The organisers of Defqon. 1 have released a statement saying they are “deeply saddened by the tragic passing of two of their patrons at Nepean Hospital after attending the festival” and “would like to convey their sincerest condolences to their families and friends”.

“Thoughts and prayers are also with the young man and woman who are still in a critical condition.

“We are disappointed at the number of reported drug related incidents, we have a zero-tolerance policy in relation to drug use at the festival. Festival organisers are working closely and cooperating with the authorities regarding the fatalities and the number of medical presentations made during the evening, a full investigation is currently underway.

“As this is a matter with the NSW Police and the coroner and out of respect for the families and friends we are not going to speculate on the cause of death and we will not be making any further statements or comments.”

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  1. Kate Tog

    This discussion (I use this term loosely) happens every year and the policy makers insist on burying their heads in the sand and we have more deaths happening. How much more obvious does it need to be that pill testing can save lives and prohibition and scaremongering is not working?

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