By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Summertime in Australia is synonymous with music festivals.
Tragically, it has also become synonymous with preventable deaths at outdoor music events.
Following the deaths at Defqon.1 and Knockout Games of Destiny Festivals in Sydney two more young men have died and several others are in hospital when festival-goers in Coffs Harbour took an ‘unknown substance’.
A Melbourne man has also died after ‘loading up’ on drugs prior to entering an event, hoping to avoid detection by police.
As the drugs being taken are unregulated, the quality and strength can vary enormously, and suppliers will often fill them with potentially deadly ingredients – which cannot be detected without testing.
Pill testing saves lives
Pill testing that is conveniently located inside music festivals proven to drastically reduce or even eliminate deaths from overdoses in European countries.
It first emerged in the early 1990s in the Netherlands – where it is now part of national drug policy – and services are routinely available in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal and France.
Since it was introduced in Portugal, for example, there have been zero deaths from overdoses. Like other countries, Portugal allows risk-management services to attend major festivals to provide advice about drug use through psychologists, mental health assistants and medics, as well as pill screening services.
And research from Austria has found that half of the people who use the drug testing service said the results influenced their drug use behaviour. Two-thirds decided not to consume drugs that were shown to have impurities, those who said they took them anyway consumed less, and an overwhelming number said they would warn friends over a drug batch that generated negative results.
Research from New York published just last month showed similar positive results from a campaign of ecstasy testing.
Pill testing works by analysing a small sample of the pill. Results are generally available within half an hour and those working from the tent can provide invaluable advice and guidance to young users.
Pamphlets are often also provided, with advice about seeking help and support for drug use and underlying issues.
Pressure is mounting on Politicians
Despite the proven benefits, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian continues to reject calls for pill testing, making it clear any advice from experts will do nothing to change her stance.
But immense pressure from experts and community groups has some mainstream politicians entertaining the possibility of introducing the life-saving measure.
The New South Wales Labor Party has committed to a ‘drug summit’ if elected in March. Although falling short of saying it will introduce pill testing, the party says it is open to understanding how it could actually work.
In Queensland, the State government has also announced it is open to considering pill testing, partly based on the positive results of a trial at the Groovin’ the Moo music festival in Canberra last year.
Queensland’s opposition party has also announced it would be open to the policy if there was conclusive evidence pill testing would save lives.
Meanwhile, the Greens Party has long been in favour of pill testing.
Even former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has spoken out, saying “enough is enough” and that clearly the ‘Just Say No’ campaign is not working.
“In responding to tragedy we must sometimes face hard truths. 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,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in a recent interview.
And now, outspoken Anglican priest Rod Bower has weighed into the debate, recently tweeting a photograph of the billboard outside his Gosford church which reads: ‘Just test the damn pills’ (pictured).
Open letter to NSW Government
But it’s also clear that the community is tired of politicians treating young people’s lives as an election platform.
The national campaign for drug reform, Take Control, has written an open letter to the Government which is now circulating online urging a reconsideration of the issue. The letter is currently doing the rounds on social media, attracting thousands of signatures in support.
Indeed, research from the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) suggests that the overwhelming majority of young people are in favour of pill testing.
The controversy remains
But despite the research, pill testing remains controversial for many reasons – mostly due to the old conservative line that it encourages the use of illegal substances.
And some have pointed out that the measure is not completely ‘fail-proof’, because it is not able to identify all substances and cannot force people not to take their drugs.
There are also human factors at play – people can react differently when it comes to ingesting substances.
But the results of Australia’s first pill testing trial at the Groovin’ the Moo Festival in Canberra last year proved the merits of pill testing locally.
Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided, thinking it was best not to take the chance on consuming them, after they’d received the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.
Drugs belonging to two revellers were actually found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant responsible for mass overdoses in Europe. So, the pill testing service potentially saved these individuals’ lives.
And for many Australians, this type of evidence together with the success of pill testing in other countries is enough to work towards minimising the harm here.