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Why Police Are Vital To The Success Of Pill Testing

I am not only disappointed but also quietly infuriated by Premier Berejiklian's announcement of a pilot of an increased law and order response as her answer to the festival drug problem.

I have come to realise that pill testing is not a drugs issue, it is a people issue.

People who bring drugs to a pill testing service already intend to take them. Pill testing is the medical intervention that is often the final roadblock on the path to that decision; the final red light telling them to stop, wait, and maybe talk to someone who knows their stuff first.

The whole idea of testing unregulated drugs is to improve punters’ knowledge so that, whatever decision they end up making regarding drugs, they are in a better, more informed position to do so. Pill testing prioritises people, in particular their safety and well-being.

It is not about controlling levels of drug use, it is about reducing levels of danger and harm.

But there are wider benefits. Pill testing provides an opportunity for police, harm-reduction workers, and young festivalgoers to work together to prevent adverse incidents at festivals. It can only work if all stakeholders come to the table and cooperate.

Make no mistake -- the role of police as a stakeholder in this context is absolutely vital, even more so in terms of their relationship with young people.

Street policing is overwhelmingly the responsibility of young policemen and women; officers about the same age, and with similar social habits, likes and dislikes to the people who attend festivals.

However, street policing is also unpredictable and potentially more dangerous than ever. Certainly the most dangerous in my 45-or-so-year association with police practice.

Never have young police officers needed the support and trust of young Australians -- who frequent the locations and events that require street policing -- more than now. Policing is essentially only as effective as the support and assistance it receives from the community.

But our drugs policy -- particularly in regard to pill testing, and the enforcement of criminal penalties for use and possession -- drives barriers and suspicions, and isolates police from their most important potential support base.

Instead, they’re forced to operate in a role of conflict and enforcement. Rather than being seen as trusted protectors of young, fun-loving, and otherwise law-abiding Australians, there to offer help and support, they are viewed with distrust, as only existing to arrest and punish. In many cases, to arrest and punish for conduct they themselves would engage in when off-duty.

No wonder young Australians tell them lies or hide the truth when things go wrong and one of their friends suffers a medical episode -- our whole damn policy is almost aimed at achieving exactly that result.

The cloud of stigma that continues to hover over drug use leaves young people at odds with the very people that can provide the most immediate help.

Why would you go to an officer for help at an event when it’s apparent they’re now being instructed to strip search and eject people who aren’t even carrying drugs?

We’ve seen the benefits that result when the gap between police and the community is bridged. The first pill testing service at Groovin’ The Moo 2018 had the full support of law enforcement, and would not have been able to succeed without it.

Rather than forcing police into the role of antagonist, governments need to remove criminal sanctions for use and possession, and support harm reduction measures like pill testing. They need to give police a chance to work productively with individuals and groups, and build that essential trust with the young people.

Police are actually very good at protecting people. They spend more time doing it than they do arresting people. But governments need to give them the opportunity to do so.