Former Police Commissioner: Weaker Alternatives To Pill Testing Will Not Curb Festival Deaths

The past few months have again shone the spotlight on the campaign for pill testing in Australia.

Since the second successful trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra earlier this year, the push for pill testing has ramped up following the NSW coronial inquest into the deaths of several young people attending music festivals.

We've already seen the ACT government exercise courage and forward-thinking in establishing a trial in its jurisdiction. The ACT trial showed it is possible for government, law enforcement, event promoters and harm-reduction advocates to work together to enhance the safety of festival goers and for the greater good. More importantly, the trial was well received by festival goers and there is no reason to think this cannot happen elsewhere.

A Compact FTIR Spectrometer pill testing machine is seen during a demonstration event at Parliament House in Canberra on 17 September 2019. (Image: AAP)

Now, we have word that Tasmania and other jurisdictions are considering implementing pill testing too.

I come to my position as a consequence of witnessing the failure of our current approach.

The reality is that the vast majority of people who intend to use drugs at a festival are decent young Australians, who would otherwise never come to the attention of police and who are taking drugs to enhance the enjoyment of their night out. Regardless of how misconceived this intention might be, it is what it is.

Currently there is no quality control on offer to attempt to qualify this behaviour or provide advice and warnings. The number of hospitalisations and adverse reactions, including deaths, illustrates the deficiencies in our ‘just say no / law enforcement’ approach.

We must be prepared to try another way.

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There has been recent discussion about so-called “back-of-house testing”. This is a service that would be available only to law enforcement and ambulance services. The idea is that drugs that are found or confiscated by the police or paramedics will be tested and, if they're determined to be dangerous, an alert is sent out on social media and a smartphone app. The service remains off-limits to its intended beneficiaries.

Step By Step Guide To How Pill Testing Works

My professional and personal experiences combine to convince me that this approach would take Australia backwards.

Whilst I believe that testing and broadcasting warnings about dangerous drugs is vitally important, a service that aims to do this yet does not make young punters the focus is not, in my opinion, pill testing at all. It is certainly not harm reduction, which surely should be the central purpose of the exercise. It is simply another branch of law enforcement.

Services that advocate this type of testing aim to change attitudes within law enforcement by providing them with an opportunity to see how the service works and how it can be useful.

What they fail to take into account is, ultimately, it is largely irrelevant what the police think about pill testing. They are an arm of the government and duty bound to enforce its laws. If the government has decided it is opposed to pill testing, whilst some discretion can be exercised, law enforcement must also be opposed.

The 'back-of-house' pill testing method would take Australia backwards. (Image: Getty)

More importantly, the current police methodology, including surveillance and the use of sniffer dogs,  defies the purpose that has always been at the very core of pill testing: enhancing engagement with a demographic that will not traditionally access drug-related health services. We need to directly provide them with information and strategies so they can take steps to reduce the harm to themselves and their friends.

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Empowering people to make fully-informed decisions about drugs is a central tenet of proper pill testing. It puts young punters first. It provides them with the incentive to get their drugs tested before making the decision to consume them. This not only empowers them to make better decisions, it also reduces the likelihood of a potentially fatal event.

Back door models and surveillance will do very little for people to make better-informed decisions about drug use and they certainly will not allow any opportunity for harm reduction workers to engage with the actual people attending live music events.