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.