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Festival deaths fuel fresh calls for pill testing

The death of two men in their 20s ramped up the pressure to introduce pill testing at music festival’s. Amos Adams Jones reports.

In the debate over pill testing there is one inevitable truth: young people are still going to music festivals, and they are still going to take drugs.

“To be honest, if I am at a music festival, I am probably going to be taking drugs. And so are most people,” says Nathan*, 21, from Melbourne, a regular festival goer who is pleading for the government to introduce drug checking services at festivals.

“I have seen people OD at festivals, and I just pray that doesn’t happen to me, or one of my friends. If we’re going to take drugs regardless, why doesn’t the government just give us the services to do it as safely as we can?”

The pill testing debate has ramped up recently, after two men in their 20’s died at a Sydney music festival in October.

Revellers at the Beyond the Valley festval earlier this year. Photo: Amos Adams Jones.

In the early hours of October 2, NSW police were called to Sydney Olympic Park to treat a 26-year-old man who was transferred to concord hospital where he later died from a drug overdose.

Another 21-year-old man was treated by paramedics in Chippendale before being rushed to hospital where he also died from a suspected drug overdose.

The two deaths have shunned the spotlight on the need for drug testing services to be introduced at music festivals across Australia.

Gino Vumbaca, president and co-founder of Harm Reduction Australia, says the only people opposed to drug testing services are drug dealers and politicians.

“The people opposed to pill testing are drug dealers and politicians, because they're the only ones that seem to want an unregulated, uninformed market,” Vumbaca says.

“The public health principle that applies to pill testing and most harm reduction services is, the better informed you are, the better decisions you make.

“If you think about when you go shopping, you have labels, or nav star systems. That's to help you as a consumer understand what it is you're about to consume, and the contents of its potential health problems, benefits, whatever it maybe, but at least you know what it is you're buying and what you're going to consume. In the illicit drug market, you have no idea, no idea at all."

Vumbuca believes the biggest misunderstanding about drug checking services, is that they support drug use.

“The biggest misconception really is that they construe our services and our programs and policies to be what they call a green light or to tell people it's safe to use drugs. And that's not what we do. There's an inherent harm in any drug use. You take alcohol, or prescription drugs as an inherent harm, as well as the currently illicit drugs,” he says.

“What we do is we provide them with far more information on the illicit drug they've got, because there is no information for them really. They really don't know what they're taking and the person they bought it from probably has no idea what's in it either.”

The ACT Government announced Australia’s first fixed-site drug testing service as a six-month trial in July 2022, and the ACT government has since extended the trial site until at least December 2024.

The Queensland government became the second state to introduce drug checking services, announcing in February that the services will be available at festivals in Queensland by the end of the year.

Rebecca Lang, Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland Network of Alcohol and Drug Agencies, believes the trial in Canberra proved the value of drug checking services.

“Drug checking services have been proven to engage people who use drugs who may never have spoken with a health professional about their drug use before and provide an opportunity to provide a brief intervention that can protect the health and wellbeing of people who access the service," said Lang in a staement.

Dr Gabriel Caluzzi, leading researcher at La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy, says that conservative governments are hesitant to introduce drug checking services.

“I think it’s politically difficult to introduce what seems like quite a radical idea. Which is, we're not taking a hard-line prohibition stance against drugs. We're taking a harm reduction stance, and it's just a very different way of thinking,” Caluzzi says.

Left: Dr Gabriel Caluzzi. (Photo: Amos Adams Jones)

“Governments, particularly conservative governments, have tended to take that very hard-line prohibition approach. So, sort of shifting the frame into harm reduction, rather than hard-line prohibition is something that I think a lot of governments struggle to grapple with.

Caluzzi led a study by La Trobe University in 2019, surveying more than 20,000 people’s opinions on introducing drug checking services.

“The big picture is that the majority of people did support drug testing or pill testing facilities. I think it was about 56 per cent oiverall," he says.

“We looked at different population groups as well, to see if there was some that supported it much more than others. We did find that there were some differences based on education level, socio economic status, whether people lived within cities or lives more regionally. Younger people, and more educated women, were more likely to support policy, as opposed to, older men aged over 55 that were less likely to support the policy.”

Former Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews held a firm stance against introducing pill testing services in Victoria. Andrews was questioned at a press conference in February about the possibility of Victoria following Queensland in introducing pill testing.

“You can’t take these drugs at any level and be safe,” he said. "The government is not introducing a pill testing trial. Queensland can do that if they choose to, we aren't."

Other harm reduction services, such as safe injecting rooms already exist in Victoria and NSW.

Australia’s first safe injecting room began operating in Sydney's Kings Cross in 2001, while a safe injecting room in north Richmond in Melbourne has been open since 2018.

* Nathan is not his actual name as he wishes to remain anonymous.


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