By Jamie Apps
While the never ending ‘war on drugs’ rages on, young lives continue to be lost. Yet one of the most effective and proven harm minimisation methods, pill testing, continues to be ignored in NSW.
Internationally, particularly in Europe, pill testing at music festivals has been implemented for almost 20 years. Just last month though the first ever Australian trial of the program was conducted in Canberra at Groovin The Moo. The testing was a collaborative effort conducted by Safety and Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE), the ACT government and ACT Police.
Under this testing program 128 festival patrons submitted 85 seperate samples for testing with results indicating that 50 percent contained ‘other’ (lactose, artificial sweetener or paint etc) and in the most disturbing finding two (2) samples were considered lethal if consumed.
Based off of these findings Harm Reduction Australia President Gino Vumbaca believes his group was able to “deliver what was promised”, which was a sentiment echoed by ACT Police Chief Justine Saunders who said the testing was a “great success.”
Given these results NSW Greens Minister David Shoebridge is “astounded” that a nationally recognised pill testing program has not been implemented.
“The results of the trial in Canberra confirmed absolutely that pill testing is an essential harm reduction measure,” said Mr Shoebridge. “A test that allows festival-goers to reject a pill because it appears to be dangerous or not contain what they had intended surely can only reduce harm.”
In a statement from a spokesperson for the NSW Minister of Police and Emergency Services, Troy Grant the matter is not so clean cut.
“No test can guarantee the safety of an illegal drug or its effect on an individual. This government will not be complicit in providing a false sense of confidence that the drug a person intends on taking will not harm them. We strongly urge people not to take illegal drugs and will continue to work with event organisers to ensure that dance parties and festivals are as safe as possible.”
Currently in NSW the Drug Dog program is the primary tool implemented by police to minimise drug use at music festivals and dance parties.
However according to Mr Shoebridge the Drug Dog program is a “woefully ineffective” harm minimisation measure.
“Over its 17 years of operation the drug dog program has proven to be a costly waste of funds with false positive rates as high as 80 percent in some commands.”
This was reflected at the recent Midnight Mafia music festival where only 45 of the 187 people searched following a ‘positive’ drug dog indication were found to have illegal drugs on them. Despite these heavily skewed results all patrons who were searched were then refused entry into the event.
“What we saw at Midnight Mafia was a bizarre totalitarian approach and shows just how extreme the failing war on drugs has become,” said Mr Shoebridge.
On the flip side of the argument it has been argued that by providing pill testing services at music festivals it encourages drug use. According to Mr Vumbaca this is simply not the case.
“The people who used our testing service had already gone through security, passed police on the perimeter and were inside the festival itself. Pill testing does not encourage or condone drug use rather we simply ask patrons to pause before consuming a pill to at least have it analysed so that we can then give some information about what it is they’re thinking about taking, its potential effects and how to seek assistance if something adverse were to occur.”
During our research City Hub reached out to a number of music festival promotors for comment but we were regularly told there was a fear that commenting on the matter would bring their events under extra scrutiny.
Even though music festivals are run as private businesses they cannot implement any form of pill testing program to protect their patrons without cooperation from the government or police.
In order to roll out a pill testing program in NSW Mr Shoebridge explained to City Hub that there isn’t a need to amend any current laws or create any new laws.
“We already have a system that allows police discretion to be used to allow the safe injecting centre in Kings Cross to operate and that same discretion could be applied to allow pill testing at festivals to operate.”
Therefore at this stage the only step that can be taken is to continue to lobby the government and argue the case for pill testing. Mr Vumbaca will continue to lead this charge, now armed with the results of a trial conducted under Australian conditions.
“We’re asking governments to stop sticking to their anti-pill testing rhetoric and simply review the evidence.”