Out-of-body Politics: ‘Do it Yourself’ Pill testing debate heats up

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Words || Shannon Abberton 

Recreational drugs have been around for centuries. Yet today they are causing an increasing amount of deaths. The latest source of controversy has arisen from Australian music festivals.

At one News Year’s Day festival, Field Day, a woman was rushed to hospital after suffering from an overdose. This follows three drug related deaths at similar events in the past year. NSW government officials, in response to these tragic fatalities, have threatened to shut down some festivals—however, the effectiveness of this solution remains to be seen.

Dr David Caldicott—a highly recognised emergency doctor who specialises in minimising the acute health effects of illicit drugs—remains sceptical. He is concerned that shutting down festivals will only serve to drive them underground, reducing the potential for emergency care and ultimately resulting in more deaths. He has analogised that the solution put forward by NSW Deputy Premier Tory Grant is the “ideological equivalent to climate change denialism”.

Caldicott says festivals will go ahead “they just won’t go ahead in any sort of supervised environment”. If we learned from past attempts at policing drug use, this could be a mistake: “You’ll get what happened in the United States in the 1980s which was a wide variety of unsupervised raves and a vast number of people getting hurt and killed”.

As an alternative, Caldicott has fervently advocated for pill testing at music festivals in Australia. However, this requires an arduous battle with Government and police officials to abandon their current no tolerance approach to drugs.

Caldicott is not alone in this respect, The Australian Drug Foundation national policy manager Geoff Munro has also suggested a trial of pill testing in Australia. Will Tregoning, the founder of drug harm minimisation group Unharmed has stated that Australia is one of the leading users of ecstasy per capita, yet lacks the pill testing that has begun taking place in the US, UK and Europe. In these countries pill testing has been an effective process where festivalgoers have a drug testing service but also an opportunity to safely dispose of drugs that they deem too harmful to take.

Tregoning plans to launch a pilot pill testing program by parking vans equipped with laboratory grade equipment and toxicologists outside music festivals. Barriers to the shield the van would also be used to protect people from prosecution. The vigilante program has been criticised by NSW Deputy Premier, Troy Grant, who said organisers could be charged with drug supply and manslaughter. NSW Premier, Mike Baird, said the government would not use “tax payer funded dollars” towards “supporting illegal drug dealers”.

The Greens political party on the other hand has responded by launching a new policy advocating pill testing. According to Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, the there needs to be a shift in focus from enforcing a ‘no tolerance’ policy, to readily accessible healthcare for those affected by drugs when they need it.

Di Natale has suggested that Australia follow Portugal’s example of not prosecuting the individuals but redirecting the money spent on law enforcement into treatment and the individual’s healthcare needs. In Portugal this has resulted in more people coming forward requesting treatment and more families and friends supporting the individual into finding treatment, as the individual is not treated like a criminal but like someone who is in need of care.

I spoke to Dr James Martin of Macquarie University who completed his PhD in Criminology and is currently researching online drug distribution. He explained that harm reduction measures, for example pill testing, are effective in testing the quality and reliability of the drug. The process not only takes a sample of the drug to gain the chemical composition, but also captures an image of the drug and provides this image to other festivalgoers. This is an effective tool as there is a high possibility that other drugs came from the same batch, and knowing the look and markings of a potentially dangerous pill can strongly deter users from making ill-informed decisions.

Dr Martin also explained that other drug procedures in place at music festivals are less effective than we may believe. An example of this includes sniffer dogs where three quarters of searches are inaccurate. The threat of sniffer dogs can also result in festivalgoers ingesting a potentially fatal quantity of illicit substances to avoid detection. The police have been warned about these dangers, yet due to their no tolerance policies, sniffer dogs remain present.

That the current drug regulations are ineffective, suggests that pill testing services may be a worthwhile alternative for discouraging the consumption of drugs that may result in death. These services are more about precaution and education than promoting drug use.  Amanda Roxburgh, a researcher on methamphetamine-related deaths has commented: “Often what happens is people are buying what they think is ecstasy and it’s something much more toxic”.

The questions the NSW Government needs to ask itself are: Is clinging to the hope of a completely drug-free society worth isolating and endangering illicit drug users? And, if pill testing can help prevent deaths, isn’t it at least worth a trial?