Is pill testing at festivals the answer we've been looking for?

March 17, 2016
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Australia’s festival scene is quickly becoming notorious for drug-related deaths. In the last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that there were six drug-related deaths across Australia at music festivals alone.

According to the UN’s 2014 World Drug Report, Australia currently leads the world in ecstasy use, with the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey stating just under 11 per cent of Australians have tried the drug. That’s a huge 8 per cent increase in the last 10 years.

This raises a few questions: how many more deaths will it take before we take action? Are Australia’s drug policies outdated? And do we need a new way to combat drugs?

Emergency consultant and CU clinical lecturer at the Australian National University, Dr David Caldicott, certainly thinks so.

“What we’re doing at the moment sure as hell isn’t working,” he says. “The markets have evolved fantastically in a bad way in the last five years - if not ten - and the law that we have in place for interdiction and tracking are just outdated beyond belief … we’re left with a situation where people are attempting to legislate against drugs that are emerging faster than the legislation can keep up.”

Dr Caldicott is one of the primary experts, along with President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak, behind the privately funded pill testing facilities proposed to target music festivals nationwide.

Dr Caldicott says the mobile laboratory drug testing facilities, first seen across Europe, will allow festival punters to check what their drugs contain and identify anything that will do them serious harm. Ecstasy, one of the drugs usually associated with festivals and often referred to as ‘pingers’, ‘eckies’, ‘pills’ and ‘molly’, contains the stimulant drug MDMA. However, a lot of drugs and pills sold as ecstasy in fact contain little to no MDMA. Instead, they contain a mix of other drugs and fillers such as household cleaning products, which makes it difficult for consumers to judge the consequences of consuming the drug.

Dr Caldicott believes being able to test what is in the drugs will reduce the number of drug-related deaths like those witnessed across the nation last year.

“There is good evidence from overseas to suggest … by having a medical presence associated with this intervention, you can persuade as many as sixty per cent of young consumers to do something other than consume their drugs,” he says. “If you hold it up against the next best effort that most states and territories have to offer, which are sniffer dogs, the NSW Ombudsman report in 2006 suggests they’re of no utility whatsoever … that they might actually cause harm by scaring young people into consuming their drugs.”

If there wasn’t so much fear surrounding drug smuggling into festivals specifically, then people might want to be more careful with … what they’re putting in their body.

Music festival-goer Jonathon Poulson is in full support of Dr Caldicott and the proposed pill testing facilities.

“Part of the reason people overdose is they’re scared of getting caught, so they take everything they have in one go to get rid of it all,” Jonathon says. “If there wasn’t so much fear surrounding drug smuggling into festivals specifically, then people might want to be more careful with … what they’re putting in their body.”

However, not everyone is in support of the proposal, with the NSW Government strongly affirming their position against it.

During a recent appearance on Channel Seven’s Sunrise, NSW Premier Mike Baird said that abstinence from drugs is the only way to ensure safety.

“What they are asking us to do is to allow illegal drugs,” he said. “Don't do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don't take the pills and you'll be fine.”

Deputy NSW Premier Troy Grant, like Mr Baird, is also firmly against the pill testing program.

He told 2UE radio that Dr Caldicott and his partners in the program could risk arrest and “be vulnerable to manslaughter charges” by carrying out their proposal.

However, Dr Caldicott says he is not afraid of arrest, because “medically” pill testing is the right thing to do. He says that if Australia doesn’t get up to speed with other countries, as far as drug policy is concerned, we will look like North Korea.

“When I was growing up in Ireland, which wasn’t a million years ago, you still needed a prescription for a condom, and yet we have marriage equality,” he says. “[Ireland has] come further than Australia in the last fifteen years, and so it can be done.”

Your parents say you can’t date, so you date. You're told you can't go out, so you sneak out. Drugs are illegal, and that'll make some people do it simply just for the rush.

Dr Caldicott reckons there are “old dinosaurs” making the decisions in Australian politics, and that’s why there is such high resistance to change.

“The first failure of prohibition first occurred when Eve decided to eat the Apple that God told her not to, so it is within our human DNA failure of prohibition,” he says. “I’m not a religious person, but it’s the fact that some of our opponents are very religious and still overlook the analogy of Eve.”

Regular festival attendee, Tayla Cuy, also believes that because drugs are illegal, it encourages some people to rebel for the “thrill”.

“Your parents say you can’t date, so you date,” Tayla says. “You're told you can't go out, so you sneak out. Drugs are illegal, and that'll make some people do it simply just for the rush.”

“Despite opposing prohibition laws surrounding drug use, Dr Caldicott does believe law enforcement play a critical role in preventing the import and export of drugs. However, in terms of persuading young Australians against drug use and reducing the demand for it, he says that as a medical expert, he is more influential.

“If I tell [drug users] that this particular drug or this particular dose could cause their dicks to fall off or cause their hair to fall out, then I think I probably win that persuasion game.”

In a statement provided to Fairfax Media, Stereosonic promoters Totem OneLove Group also show support for pill testing, stating they “strongly support any policies or initiatives that would minimise harm, reduce drug use and make events a safer environment for patrons”.This follows the drug-related deaths of two Stereosonic patrons last year.

A survey conducted by the National Council on Drugs in 2013 revealed that more than three quarters of young Australians also back the pilot of pill testing facilities. But with the NSW Government currently showing no plans of changing their position on pill testing, Dr Caldicott says he’s happy to trial the program with the jurisdiction that is most “co-operative”.

He says the program they have developed will ensure the health of patrons, as well as their safety from arrest. This echoes the pledge from National Greens Leader Richard Di Natale, who has also raised the issue of how Australia tackles drug use. His belief is that we need to focus on harm reduction rather than punishment. Di Natale sees Portugal as a great example of this, where drug dealers still accrue penalties, but drug users are given medical treatment and social support instead of harsh criminal penalties. Dr Caldicott’s plan takes a similar approach.

“Our job as doctors is to have a duty of care to them that includes their lifestyle and them having a criminal record,” says Dr Caldicott. “I certainly would not be interested in doing this if it put patrons at risk in any way.”

If you feel you or someone you know is at risk of a drug problem, help and support can be found on the Australian Drug Foundation website.

Bridget Kerry

Bridget is a peach and avocado enthusiast and studies Journalism and International Relations at the University of South Australia.

Image: Eva Rinaldi, Flickr Creative Commons license

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