State of play: For and against pill testing

Amanda Lyons

7/01/2019 2:13:38 PM

This summer has already seen two overdose deaths and a number of hospitalisations at Australian music festivals, re-energising the debate over the implementation of pill testing. newsGP explores various aspects of the debate. 

The debate over pill testing at music festivals continues – as do overdose deaths.
The debate over pill testing at music festivals continues – as do overdose deaths.

The issue of pill testing, it seems, will not be going away any time soon.

This Christmas and New Year’s holiday has already seen two overdose deaths and several hospitalisations following drug overdoses at music festivals.
But despite a successful pill testing trial at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April 2018, as well as growing non-partisan support for pill testing at music festivals among the public, political leaders remain reluctant to implement the measure.
‘We have to remember that these substances are illegal and they’re illegal for a reason. One pill can kill and we need to educate our young people that you don't need to be on drugs to have a good time at a concert,’ deputy leader of Queensland’s Liberal National Party, Tim Mander, stated last week.
However, an anonymous opinion piece published in The Age, I know all the risks but I’m still going to take drugs at festivals, underscores the reasons why such an approach is unlikely to work.
‘For many, the solution to drug-related deaths is much simpler than pill testing: just stop taking them,’ the 21-year-old anonymous author wrote.
‘Anyone who has been to a festival in the past few years would quickly realise that as long as this attitude continues, deaths will continue.’
Arguments against pill testing
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has expressed concerns that pill testing would give people a ‘false sense of security’ and promote further drug use among young people.
‘We do not support a culture that says it is okay to take illegal drugs, and I am worried about the number of people who attend these events who think it is okay to take illegal drugs,’ she said last year following two drug overdoses at Sydney’s Defqon 1 festival.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also ruled out pill testing under his leadership, stating ‘there is no safe level at which these substances can be taken’.
This stance was recently further confirmed by Victoria’s acting Health Minister Martin Foley, who said that ‘advice from Victoria Police tells us [pill testing] can give people a false, and potentially fatal, sense of security about illicit drugs’.
Arguments for pill testing
Associate Professor David Caldicott, designer of the Groovin the Moo pill testing trial and emergency consultant with a special interest in toxicology, believes the trial was very successful. He has been a vocal supporter of this kind of harm-minimisation approach as the best way to help stop further festival deaths.
‘There is pretty conclusive evidence that people who identify their drugs as being something other than what they expected at music festivals do something other than take those drugs,’ he told newsGP late last year.
‘So if they’re not putting their drugs in their mouth then they’re less likely to overdose. It’s pretty straightforward.’
Associate Professor Caldicott has been very disappointed by continued reluctance to implement pill testing at music festivals.
‘As long as we continue to do what we’re doing in Australia in regards to drug policy, we’ll continue to get the same results,’ he said.
Dr Hester Wilson, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine network, agrees.
‘Pill testing saves lives – that’s the bottom line,’ she told newsGP late last year.
‘Let’s allow people to check their pills so they can be sure that they’re safe.’
Dr Wilson said that while it is preferable that people do not engage in risky drug-taking behaviours, the reality is that they do, which makes pill testing ‘an absolute no-brainer’.
‘There might be a few more people that take [drugs], but it [would be] safer,’ she said.
‘It’s about danger for me. I don’t understand why the politicians find it so hard to think through this.’
There is also strong support among the public, with a recent survey conducted by Essential Report finding that 59% of respondents support a pill testing policy, while only 17% oppose it.
Ms Adriana Buccianti, who lost her son to overdose at the Rainbow Serpent Festival in Victoria seven years ago, has a poignant question for policy makers.
‘What would you do if that was your son or daughter? Would you not want somebody to do something about it?’ she told the ABC.
‘I’d like them to … think what it would be like for their kids never to come back. This is what I have to go through every day.
‘They have the power to be able to put a safety net in place.’
Changing attitudes?
There are signs, in the wake of the latest two music festival overdose deaths, that the hard-line anti-pill testing position may be changing in NSW, with opposition leader Michael Daley declaring that pill testing should ‘not be off the table’.
‘Just say no is not the answer. We can’t... close the door on some possible solutions,’ he said.
Premier Berejiklian has also indicated a softening of her stance on pill testing, stating that her government would consider the measure if provided evidence it would save lives.
‘If there was a way in which we could ensure that lives were saved through pill testing we would consider it, but there is no evidence provided to the government on that,’ she said.
Dr Christian Rowan, a Queensland Liberal National Party MP and former President of the Queensland branch of the Australian Medical Association, has – in contrast to his colleague Mr Mander – spoken out in support of potential pill testing.
‘We need to understand as legislators and as a community that within the comprehensive range of strategies to reduce harms, that we need to consider this [pill testing],’ he said.
Even the former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer, would like to see a change in drug policy.
‘When are we going to learn that threats and our current “Just Say No” campaign are not working?’ he said in a statement.
‘Pill testing is not a silver bullet, but it’s a proven and positive way to help prevent this kind of tragedy, has majority support from Australians and must be at least trialled on a pilot basis.’

harm minimisation illicit drugs Pill testing

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Lucas Parry   8/01/2019 8:52:38 AM

I don't know if News GP claims to be "neutral" or if it openly leans one way or another, or if its articles are vetted for bias, but this article was not neutral. It obviously aims to provide evidence and arguments to us readers from one perspective, make it sound pre-mainstream and a "no-brainer". It's supporting a political agenda with medical arguments, which is not right.
I want to to able to read and trust these articles more.

Dale van der Mescht   8/01/2019 12:49:36 PM

I find it strange that we should support the idea of pill testing to tell people “the thing you obtained illegally and with proven harmful effects” is safe feel free to take it with my blessing...?

If people are so brave to take these things then let them take them... it’s russian roulette, you know the risk (like that cool kid who wrote the anonymous article said) so take a chance, but don’t want to have your illegal cake, and eat it too...

ian hilliar   8/01/2019 2:06:35 PM

Is this David Caldicott the son of Helen Caldicott, who led the green movement against nuclear power, resulting in Australia being the only non nuclear member of the G20? The thinking, or lack thereof, looks similar...Still, could be a good earner for the manufacturer of the pill testing devices, which would eventually have to be rolled out at every pub, club , bar or playground in the country.....until the first death from an undetected new toxin, at which time the whole system will fold. Don't you just love the way that push polling now controls the media? Or does it? The ABC and the main stream media focused on the latest children's crusade, this time about "global warming", but never reported on Mission Australia's poll of young Australians, which put jobs and mental health at the top and global warming at a long last. Why don't you "report" on that!

James Kidd   9/01/2019 10:09:44 AM

The main group we are discussing is quite different from those who go to the injection rooms for addicts so to use this in the argument for is fatuous. What is the protocol for a tested drug being unsafe? Can the owner demand it back and perhaps sell it on to get the cost back? If it can be kept by the tester what is done with it? If it is destroyed an excellent resource has been lost. If it is found that a seller in quantity has found to have the same drug surely this information can be used to help track down the manufacturer and the information used to increase the penalty for both the manufacturer and supplier. This approach may save lives but anything less is unlikely to be successful.
In my experience as a GP from 1964 to retirement well as peer pressure the statement of support for decriminalization and the use by teachers and medical professionals has been of significance in the patient before me who is have adverse side effects or is now addicted. As irrational as it may seem there is the risk that pill testing will be as being in the same category as decriminalization or acquiescence.

ian hilliar   10/01/2019 7:26:55 AM

Amanda, is the music at these venues so bad you have to get stoned,smashed, wasted, cooked, or whatever to have a good time? Have the attendees evolved into droogs? And will the counsellors have pamphlets or apps to explain just what level of brain damage is "safe" for their "clients"? Oh, and will the pill testers be testing for tiger snake venom, just in case?

John   11/01/2019 10:40:57 PM

Who pays? Do the promoters pay for the huge Police & Police dog presence at these festivals events? Is the Taxpayer the payee for drug testing, counselling & hospital costs for the attendees? Has anyone calculated the real costs when so many genuine poor , needy , sick & homeless also need great assistance to improve their lot. Whatever the attendees take is voluntary , risky, reckless & stupid. They go to great lengths to illegally smuggle substances of unknown content into venues . Then the few may want to check what they purchased. The pill testing is fraught with technical difficulties making them unreliable. The claimthat this was "successful" in preventing ill effects is a total sham. A proper professional analysis is needed to establish the facts not random unproven comments.

Kenneth Higgs   16/01/2019 12:41:19 PM

Pill testing won't make dangerous drugs "safe"!
See for yourself... don't be a patsy for the drug traffickers and organised crime!

Dave   29/03/2019 6:16:50 PM

I'm with all the other posters, pill testing will just encourage people. I think to make a real impact on drugs we should look at removing all the gateway drugs too, the ones that get people used to being disinhibited or fired up more than is natural, I'm talking about all those nasties most people overlook because they are so ubiquitous, without them it's much easier to Just Say No: alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. Plus I think pharmacueticals should be much more heavily regulated, anyone can go and get amphetamines or seratonin boosters from their GP because they have "ADHD" or "depression". People should only be doing the following - read the bible, eat vegan diets, get 8 hours sleep a night and at least an hour and a half exercise every day - because united and homogenous we are stronger! Or is that twigs? And the easiest and surest way to achieve all those lofty goals is to round up everyone on alcohol, caffeine or nicotine into special health camps for their own good.