Missed opportunity: Pill testing saves lives, but politicians are against it

Australian politicians have opposed pill testing despite its harm reduction success.

Australian politicians have opposed pill testing despite its harm reduction success. Photo: Getty

Australia’s political leaders have rejected pill testing even though evidence shows it saves lives, experts say.

Harm reduction is one of the three pillars of the National Drug Strategy,  yet Australian governments are refusing to allow trials of pill testing at music festivals despite it being a proven tool for reducing overdoses, researchers wrote in an article published by the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday.

Nearly three-quarters (73.4 per cent) of surveyed music festival attendees at a recent Australian event reported drug taking, compared with just over a quarter (28.2 per cent) of the general young adult population, Dr Jody Morgan and Professor Alison Jones from the University of Wollongong and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute wrote.

For party drug MDMA (ecstasy) this was as high as 59.8 per cent, compared with 7 per cent.

“Concerningly, the 2019 Global Drug Survey identified Australia as the country with the highest number of MDMA pills consumed on a single occasion (average, 2.0 pills v global average, 1.0 pills),” the authors wrote.

“Supporting this, a survey of Australian music festival attendees found that almost half (44 per cent) of 777 respondents taking ecstasy pills reported simultaneous consumption of two ecstasy pills.

“Evidence of the dangers associated with this behaviour can be seen in the global statistics, with 2.3 per cent of Australian users seeking medical attention following MDMA use compared with a global average of 1 per cent.”

One of the major problems when considering pill testing as an official policy was that there is no current “gold standard” system in place, the authors wrote.

Different techniques, accuracy, results that are qualitative or quantitative, and differences in how the results are presented to the user, are just some of the variations in pill-testing globally.

However, Dr Morgan and Professor Jones dismissed “common arguments” against pill testing including “complaints from policy makers about lack of proven efficacy of harm reduction from pill testing; an overall feeling that pill testing condones drug use; and the fear that dealers will use pill testing results to promote their brand”.

“All of these arguments can be addressed by a well-designed system that focuses on incorporating accurate pill testing as a single component in a larger harm-reduction strategy,” they said.

Political opposition

A spate of deaths at music festivals are behind the push for Australia to embrace pill testing facilities.

In 2018, Groovin the Moo music festival in Canberra ran Australia’s first trial of a pill-testing service as part of a broader harm reduction approach.

A second trial was undertaken at this year’s festival in April.

However, political opposition to pill testing continues despite evidence of its efficacy.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been among the staunchest opponents to pill-testing trials.

In October, Ms Berejiklian reiterated that her government would not support pill testing at music festivals, despite a leaked draft of a coroner’s report recommending it.

“We will not go down that path because we feel very strongly that it sends a wrong message,” Ms Berejiklian told the ABC.

“It actually gives people a false sense of security because how one person reacts to a drug is very different to another person reacting.”

Federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has also rejected the push for pill testing.

“We need to recognise that if you’re buying a pill from some organised crime group or from a bikie … know that you have a real risk of overdosing or purchasing something that’s going to cause you great harm,” Mr Dutton said last year.

Medical leaders back pill testing

In contrast to many politicians, the nation’s medical experts have backed pill-testing trials.

Last year, Australian Medical Association boss Tony Bartone called for pill-testing trials after two young people died and three were treated in hospital following suspected drug overdoses at a Sydney music festival.

Dr Bartone said innovative approaches, under controlled circumstances, are needed to prevent future tragedies.

“We can’t continue to just use a law enforcement solution,” Dr Bartone told Sky News.

“We have a serious problem. It is out of control, and we need to have a look at a raft of solutions.

“The actual episode of testing the pill is not just saying: ‘Oh, that’s an OK drug, you can take that’.

“It’s an opportunity to try and inform [them] about the dangerous consequences and try to get an opportunity to give them education and access to rehabilitation in terms of trying to reduce their drug dependency.”

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