Federal Government Again Rejects Pill Testing Despite Expert Advice
Pill testing is "dangerous and unfounded", the health minister has claimed, in slapping down the harm minimisation strategy despite a growing group of experts in support of the move.
Canberra academic and physician Dr David Caldicott, a leader of pill testing trials, has now offered to give the federal government an in-person demonstration of the technology in Parliament House, after health minister Greg Hunt claimed the idea "is not going to save a person".
Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie asked Hunt about the concept in parliament's question time on Tuesday, after the Hobart city council voted in favour of a motion supporting pill testing on Monday.
"We know pill testing saves lives and health experts agree a harmonisation approach is the only sensible response to illicit drug use... will you as health minister put the issue of pill testing on the COAG health council?" Wilkie asked.
Pill testing -- often proposed for music festivals and concerts -- involves people bringing illicit substances to a group of qualified doctors and drug experts in order to test the makeup of their pill or substance. The person is given a scientific breakdown of the contents of the substance, and given advice that the safest thing to do would be to dispose of it.
"We would not employ anyone who would assign a value on 'good' or 'bad'. It doesn't 'pass' the test, it's not a pass or fail test. It's an identification test," emergency physician Caldicott told 10 daily last year.
The process is not just a 'test' of the drug, it also gives trained drug counsellors an opportunity to speak to potential drug users, advise them of their choices, give safety advice, and collect important drug information for research and public safety purposes.
Caldicott has run trials at Canberra's Groovin The Moo festival, and last weekend held a demonstration at the Splendour In The Grass event for an audience that included the NSW deputy coroner -- who is currently presiding over an inquest into the drug-related deaths of six young people at music events.
Caldicott told 10 daily that a dozen professional medical organisations -- including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College Of General Practitioners, the National Drug And Alcohol Research Centre -- have expressed support for pill testing, saying it could be an important harm minimisation tool to help prevent drug-related health concerns at music events.
Just last week, the Forensic and Clinical Toxicology Association joined the calls.
"There is really nobody standing in opposition," Caldicott said of the medical community.
Wilkie claimed in Question Time that governments around the country "simply don't understand the issue" of pill testing. He later tweeted that pill testing "saves lives".
But Hunt swiftly slapped down Wilkie's question of whether the concept would be raised at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) health meeting.
"What he has proposed is, I believe, a dangerous and unfounded course of action. Whether it is tested or not, MDMA, ice, certain opioids can be deadly in their purest form. These are drugs which are illegal for a reason. They are drugs because they can kill," the health minister said.
"The idea that we would be condoning, encouraging and supporting the expansion of their consumption is, to my mind, utterly unthinkable, and so this is not a position which the Australian government will be adopting. It is an position the Australian government will be opposing."
He claimed that pill testing "is not going to save a person."
"We will not be adopting the approach which the member I believe foolishly and dangerously has advocated."
Caldicott told 10 daily there was "no evidence" that pill testing encourages or condones drug use -- "quite the opposite", he countered, citing research from long-running programs operating in Europe.
"Either a person making these type of comments doesn't really understand the process. or they do and they're happy to misrepresent it to the public," he claimed.
"People change their behaviour when given an opportunity to discuss their choices."
Caldicott, based in Canberra at the Australian National University and Calvary Hospital, said he would be happy to travel to Parliament House and give a demonstration of pill testing to Hunt and the rest of the government.
"At a time and place of his choosing, I'm happy to bring our team to demonstrate how it works," he said.
"It's very easy for us. I could put the machinery on the back of my moped, and be there within 20 minutes from when he agrees."