One harm minimisation stakeholder has warned that deaths from illicit drugs will continue without pill testing, as UK data shows 20% of substances sold were not as expected
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has once again ruled out the possibility of allowing pill testing at music festivals, following a man’s death over the weekend.
A 19-year-old man died and three more people were hospitalised after suspected drug overdoses at the Knockout Games of Destiny festival.
Ms Berejiklian told the Nine Network that the state government would not permit any activity which normalised the use of illicit drugs, and that if it felt pill testing would save lives, it would allow it to take place.
“Unfortunately what pill testing doesn’t do is really take into account people’s different physical attributes. What is safe for one person isn’t safe for another,” she said.
The Knockout Games death follows the deaths of two people at the Defqon. 1 music festival in Penrith in September. At the time, Ms Berejiklian called for the event to be banned, and ruled out the possibility of pill testing.
In response to the Knockout Games fatality, the national campaign for drug law reform, Take Control, called on the NSW Government to implement pill testing in order to make music festivals safer.
The campaign also expressed regret for the loss of life this weekend.
“This is terrible tragic news and our thoughts are with the family and friends of this young Australian,” Ted Noffs Foundation CEO and campaign spokesperson Matt Noffs said.
Mr Noffs, with former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer, launched the Take Control Campaign in October.
“We must be respectful of the family and remember that every single life is precious,” he said on Monday.
“In responding to tragedy we must sometimes face hard truths—drug taking is happening.
“Decades of a punitive approach where we arrest young people has not worked. It is time to take practical steps to make parties safer for our kids.
“The NSW Government is already halfway there – supporting a range of harm minimisation measures. It makes sense to extend this to a proven service that will make our kids safer at music festivals—pill testing.
“As it stands, young people can get drugs easily, but don’t know what they are taking. Despite dealers being caught every day, more simply replace them.
“Lives are being ruined with severe charges for possession. Worst of all, it’s hard for people with problems to get help because they’re treated like criminals.
“Pill testing is not a silver bullet but it’s a good solution in the face of kids dying and being harmed.
“We hope that all parties listen to parents across NSW—a majority of Australians support pill testing—and act.
“The time for 1980s politics and the doomed ‘Say No’ era is over—that thinking puts our kids at further risk.”
In October, Mr Noffs told the AJP that community pharmacies would be a useful location for pill testing.
“I think the future of pharmacies is as a place to monitor all sorts of drugs, including currently-illicit drugs,” he said.
“We would have not a black market, but a white market with greater control.
“This could be as far as 30 years away, but it’s a future far safer than what we currently have.”
The UK data
Meanwhile, research from Durham University’s Department of Sociology has examined the operational and behavioural outcomes of a pilot festival drug safety testing service.
Fiona Measham, Director of the not for profit non-government organisation The Loop and Professor of Criminology in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, writes in the International Journal of Drug Policy that chemists provided a free, confidential testing service across four days at a July 2016 UK festival.
The chemists, working from a temporary laboratory, analysed 247 substances submitted by the public.
The test results were then delivered to the festival-goers as part of a health care consultation: 230 consultations were delivered to 900 people, comprising one in five attendees who were drug users.
The consultations included harm minimisation advice and the opportunity to dispose of substances of concern.
“Test results revealed that one in five substances was not as sold or acquired,” Prof Measham writes.
“One in five service users utilised the disposal service for further substances of concern in their possession and another one in six moderated their consumption.
“Two thirds of those whose sample was missold disposed of further substances, compared with under one in ten whose sample was as sold.
“Service users who acquired substances onsite at the festival were more than twice as likely to have been missold them as those acquired offsite, were nearly twice as likely to use the disposal service and were on average two years younger.
“Women were more likely to be using the drug for the first time and more likely to use the disposal service.
“Test results were shared with emergency services; alerts issued across site and an unanticipated feedback loop occurred to some drug suppliers.”
She concluded that festival-goers engage productively with such pill testing offers.
Such initiatives give health stakeholders the opportunity to engage with drug users who are new to illicit drugs, or who have traditionally been harder to reach out to, she says.