A new study supports pill testing, but politicians still refuse to take action

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A new study supports pill testing, but politicians still refuse to take action

Photo: Stephen Arnold
Words by Caleb Triscari

I don’t know how many times we have to go through this.

One of the more surreal things about overseeing a music magazine is having to write about drug-related harm at festivals. I had to do it a fair bit over the most recent summer, when tragedy hit a number of music festivals throughout the season. I’m sure I’m not the only journalist who finds this experience jarring.

Whenever a drug overdose occurs at a music festival, opinions from far and wide rush in. Many of them are uninformed or baseless. Most politicians remain steadfast in their ‘tough on crime’ approach to policy. This is despite report after report, medical expert after medical expert coming out in favour of harm minimisation practices, such as pill testing.

The latest study in support of pill testing comes from the second Pill Testing Australia pilot conducted at Groovin the Moo last April. During the pilot, 170 substances were tested after 234 participants came forward. In addition to simply analysing the contents of a pill, the medically-supervised service also provided non-discriminatory health information. Whether the results of the drug analysis are expected or not, the participant was always told the risks of consuming illicit substances.

“Pill testing services offer a unique and efficacious opportunity to engage with young people and affect positive behavioural change to reduce the risk of drug-related harm. This cohort is unlikely to have ever had contact with health services in relation to their drug use,” Pill Testing Australia said in the report.

On occasion, scientists found that some substances contained N-ethyl pentylone, a dangerous compound that has been linked to a number of casualties at festivals. As soon as the participants were notified of this, all of them discarded the drugs in the amnesty bins provided. What’s more, festivalgoers said “they would change their behaviour by reconsidering or taking less of the substances they had in their possession”. I didn’t need to report any drug-related deaths at Groovin the Moo this year.

Pill Testing Australia has also released an advertisement to coincide with the report’s release.

In light of this report, and those which come before it, it remains astonishing that governments, state and federal, continue to turn their back on the growing body of research in support of harm minimisation practices.

Here’s the thing: people are going to take drugs. Of course they will. You can blame it on traditional Aussie culture or whatever else, but people are going to take drugs. I’m in no way saying it’s a good thing people take drugs. Similar to alcohol or sex, the best way to minimise harm is to simply not participate. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past the point where abstinence is a practical end goal for everyone. Pill Testing Australia says it succinctly in the report: “No matter how strong our desire for people not to use drugs or our efforts at education and prevention, people will continue to use drugs.”

There’s a weird mentality floating around that only one course of action can be taken on this issue at a time; we can’t possibly implement scientifically-supported harm minimisation measures at the same time as enforcing tough policies, lest we risk looking weak on crime. If you carry this belief, the report has you in mind: “A comparison of countries with and without pill testing services indicated no evidence of an increase in rates of drug use or mortality in countries with these services.” From a political perspective, I understand that it might lose you a couple of points in the polls, but you might lose fewer lives in return.

Read the full report on Pill Testing Australia’s website.