Author Archives: Sonia Hickey

About Sonia Hickey
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer and magazine journalist with an interest in social justice, and a member of the Sydney Drug Lawyers content team.

Bumper Summer for Music Festivals, but Still No Pill-Testing in NSW

The summer season of music festivals about to start across NSW, and the state continues to attract big name acts and high profile events like the Rolling Loud Hip Hop Festival, which is expected to bring thousands of fans to Sydney early next year.

In the meantime, despite acknowledging that music festivals are a strong part of Australian culture, and benefitting from their money-making potential, the State Government continues to beef up police numbers and resources including sniffer dogs to stop drug use. And there is still no sign of pill testing.

Instead, two months ago, the NSW State Government announced a range of new initiatives for combatting drug use at music festivals including on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for drug possession and tougher penalties for dealers who supply drugs to people who die.

At this point the Government says it us working through other issues with the legislation such as the penalties for someone who gives drugs to a friend.

‘Throwing the book’ at dealers won’t help

Many pill-testing advocates are angry that the plan simply ‘throws the book’ at dealers and does nothing address the idea of reducing risk and minimising harm for those people who will take drugs.

This is because when the Government had an opportunity to listen to pill-testing experts it didn’t do so.

After the deaths of two people at Defqon1late last year, the New South Wales Government went into ‘damage control’ and assembled a panel of experts briefed with the task of making music festivals ‘safer’. At the time, many hoped that it heralded a change in mood by the state politicians, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian swiftly made it clear that the panel would not be considering the merits of pill testing because the Government didn’t support it.

In recent weeks NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has further inflamed the situation by saying that the belief that pill-testing was going to save lives is a ‘myth’.

But in fact, results from Australia’s first sanctioned pill-testing trial at the Groovin the Moo Festival in Canberra earlier this year proved that not only could free pill testing services actually be provided without encouraging more people to take illicit substances, but it prompted some to throw their drugs away.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested on the spot by laboratory-grade equipment, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided after receiving the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Pill-testing can save lives

Drugs belonging to two revellers were found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant, responsible for mass overdoses in Europe potentially saving these two individuals lives.

Pill testing has been available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France for some time, and was more recently introduced in the UK. And the results show that not only does pill-testing have the ability to save lives, it has positive effect that goes beyond saving lives.

Outcomes of pill testing over seas

The experience in some parts of Europe has been that over time, pill-testing has actually changed the black market in positive ways – potentially lethal ingredients which were the subject of warning campaigns were seen to leave the market.

Specific research from Austria shows that 50% of people who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn friends in cases where there were negative results.

In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had affected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.

Another less measurable benefit is that pill-testing booths provide an opportunity to reach an otherwise unreachable, but high-risk group of recreational drug users and provide both communication and education about their lifestyle choices as well as information about drug support services. According to testers and healthcare professionals, pill testing not only gave users a chance to know what they’re really taking but also to engage with health professionals about their drug use outside of a very formal medical setting.

In Europe, pill testing has also facilitated the capturing of long-term data about the substances in drugs as well as drug use.

Meanwhile in NSW, the Government is still doing what it has always done in response to this issue – throw more resources and tougher problems – an approach that has so far, had little effect on solving the problem.

When will the Government listen?

Of course, harm minimisation programmes like pill-testing are not a panacea by any means. They are highly controversial, mostly because people think that they will encourage more drug takers or remove the stigma’ that’s associated with taking illegal substances, and that by agreeing to pill testing is turning a ‘blind eye’ to those who break the law.

But in NSW, the traditional ‘zero tolerance’ approach is not working, and many believe that we will continue to have, more tragic and unnecessary deaths from drug taking at music festivals unless we try a new approach.

Experts are frustrated that despite all the proven benefits of pill-testing, the NSW Government flatly refuses to even trial it. And the community is getting weary too – many young Australians

are highly supportive of pill testing; a finding consistent with young people’s overall views about drugs: they want better information in order to make informed choices.

Blue ‘Superman’ Pill Warning

New South Wales police have issued warnings regarding a batch of blue pills branded with a Superman ‘S’, which they believe are responsible for five recent drug overdoses in New South Wales.

Eleven people have been taken to hospital in Newcastle, with symptoms believed to be related to taking the blue pill. While lab tests have not yet determined the composition of the tablets, police and health professionals are urging people not to ingest them.

Pill testing

The overdoses sparked renewed calls for pill testing as summer approaches – the season for schoolies, Christmas parties and music festivals.

Around Australia, police, paramedics, and hospital emergency department staff are gearing up for what they call the ‘drug season’.

2015 was arguably Australia’s worst ever year for overdoses at music festivals, resulting in governments putting festivals on ‘notice’ of closure if the problem persists.

And while most festival organisers do what they can, simply banning drugs does little to combat the problem, resulting in people embarking on the dangerous practices of ‘preloading’ before an event or taking all their drugs at once upon seeing police and sniffer dogs at the event.

The presence of deadly ‘fillers’ in pills is also a significant problem, and health professions have been pointing out for years that pill testing is a proven way of informing festival-goers about the presence of such additives in their tablets, thereby allowing them to make decisions about whether to take their drugs and, if so, how much.

Fed up with what they believe is a ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, advocates for pill testing took matters into their own hands around this time last year and made kits available at festivals across Sydney in what they say was a ‘protest manouvre’.

Spilt Milk festival trials pill-testing

The ACT has bucked the political trend, agreeing to allow a pill testing service be trialled at the Spilt Milk festival this year, on November 25.

It’s a positive step forward for pill-testing advocates, who say that in Europe, where pill testing has long been available, it has proven to be a very successful way for people to find out what they’re taking and make decisions beforehand. Australian harm minimisation advocate Dr David Caldicott, and a tireless campaigner for pill testing, says it reduces the prospect of users consuming drugs with harmful additives by 60 per cent.

The Spilt Milk festival trial comes at an interesting time for Australia, with a report released by heavy-weight think Tank group Australia 21 recommending a national move towards drug decriminalisation, with greater recognition of drug use as a health issue. The report also recommended more investment in harm-minimisation programmes, such as pill testing.

Trial results could provide a basis for expansion

The Spilt Milk festival trial will, at long last, provide local data which will enable decision-making with regard to the effectiveness of pill-testing and provide a much-needed direction for the potentially life-saving initiative.

After Spilt Milk has taken place, the organisation running the trial, Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) will share results, which it hopes will provide impetus for the programme to be expanded, not just across the ACT, but other states and territories as well.

War Against Drugs Fails to Stem the Ice Epidemic

New South Wales police have called a recent drug bust in the north of the state a small victory in the ongoing war against the drug ‘ice’.

Last week, police, arrested a 42-year old man and charged him with six offences including: one count of supplying a prohibited drug greater than a commercial quantity; two counts of supplying a prohibited drug and three counts of drug supply greater than indictable quantity.

The man’s arrest was the culmination of a nine-month investigation called Strike Force Cheddar, which targets the commercial supply of ice throughout the Richmond area.

Despite the bust, police acknowledge they are fighting an uphill battle against the use of ice, which has tripled over the past five years.

A new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia suggests there are 268,000 regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia, compared to about 90,000 users five years ago.

And more young people are turning to the drug: users in the 15 to 24 age group has more than doubled – from about 21,000 five years ago to 59,000 users now. It is in this group where the greatest hope of intervention lies, with prevention and diversion strategies working best on younger users.

In light of the figures, experts are warning that Australia could be headed for a crisis similar to the one posed by heroin in the 1990s, which killed thousands of young people and caused long term addiction problems for many more.

Country towns.

Young people in rural areas are at the highest risk of exposure to ice, with use in country towns double that of metropolitan areas.

Many rural areas have high rates of unemployment, less opportunities for education and training, higher levels of depression and other mental health issues – all of which are risk factors to drug use.

To support the habit, users often turn to dealing drugs themselves.

About ice

Crystal methamphetamine, or ice, is a stimulant drug which speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body. It is stronger, more addictive and is said to have more harmful side effects than powdered forms of methamphetamine, such as speed. 1

Ice usually comes as small, chunky, clear crystals that look like ice. It can also come as white or brownish crystal-like powder with a strong smell and bitter taste.1It is also known as shabu, crystal, glass, shard, and P.2

The drug is generally smoked or injected, but it can also be swallowed or snorted. The effects last for around 6 hours, although ‘coming down’ can take several days. The drug has been linked to extreme agitation, and high doses or frequent use can cause ‘ice psychosis’ – paranoid delusions, hallucinations and bizarre, aggressive and violent behaviour.

Experts believe that simply criminalising and punishing drug users does little to deter drug use. Most argue drug use should be seen as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and that dealing with addiction requires a multi-faceted approach across a range of areas: parents and families, educators, health practitioners, social workers, and the wider community.