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How Many More Experts Must Recommend Pill Testing Before The Government Makes It Happen?

The government has finally released the findings from the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug 'Ice'.

It’s been a tough time for the government, wading through a smorgasbord of evidence from a plethora of sources.

Now that they have acknowledged the report, it’s worth acknowledging how similar the response is to previous reports that have been handed down. After the first pill testing trials in the ACT, the favourable findings were disseminated widely. After the tragic deaths at live music festivals last year, the Coroner landed her damning report, calling for, amongst other things, the government to pilot pill testing in NSW. And now the 'Ice' Commissioner has joined the chorus, calling for a pill testing pilot alongside a raft of other harm reduction measures in NSW.

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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.

Each time, pill testing -- and measures like it -- have been ruled out.

It begs the question: how many more experts -- both government-appointed and independent -- have to recommend something before it sees the light of day?

Commissioner Professor Dan Howard at the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug 'Ice' in May 2019. (Image: Getty)

As strange as it seems, however, perhaps this is a time where we need to feel sympathetic to the government. Why? Because, as we already pointed out, there are over a hundred different recommendations in this report, including more supervised consumption rooms, the provision of clean needles in NSW prisons, and a call to decriminalise drugs like ice.

And while organisations and movements like ours would love to see this sort of revolution occur overnight, we have worked with governments long enough to know that this is simply an idealistic vision. The reality is, the government may have again ruled out measures that advocates like us have long campaigned for. But if the government is considering decriminalisation (and, allegedly, they are), we need to support them in every way we can.

Yes, it is frustrating. Change like this happens at a snail’s pace. We put all our energy and resources into fighting for something and it can feel like two steps forward, one step back. And whilst the public might significantly support measures like pill testing, it is another giant leap to have a government bring it in, much less acknowledge it.

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But we must recognise the good work that is being done, and the influence it is having. What Commissioner Dan Howard has done here, that no other committee or coroner has achieved, is to have a government seriously consider changing our drug laws. That is an achievement in itself, and one he should be congratulated for.

After all, Howard was appointed by Premier Berejiklian herself, whereas the coroner is a legal arm that has the capacity to be inconvenient for a government who does not want that sort of change.

The value of this report is in its foundations; harm reduction, the importance of treatment, and a health-centred approach to drug use underpin all its findings. It calls for greater consideration of the factors underlying harmful substance use -- mental health issues, socio-economic disadvantage, trauma -- and asks that resources be invested in prevention, as opposed to trying to fix the problem once it has already manifested.

NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian speaking at the Australia Day Address in January. (Image: Getty)

And it’s not just a report designed to improve outcomes for some of society’s most vulnerable. While a policy like providing clean needles in prisons seems only relevant to inmates, its effect is not limited to custodial settings; it affects all of us interested in our health. We need only need to look at the current potential for a coronavirus pandemic to realise that viruses are not contained by four walls. When you have shared needles, the risk of a spread of HIV or Hepatitis C is a risk to all of us.

David Caldicott

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Opposing Pill Testing Is The ‘Climate Change Denial’ Of Drugs Policy

Another death at a NSW Festival, and again, talk turns to pill testing.

These recommendations were not made lightly. They are the results of months and months of reviewing the evidence, including speaking to experts, people with lived experience, and their advocates. Many of them would significantly improve the lives of people who use drugs, and contribute to a fairer and more just society. However, we must consider the frustrating reality we live in. We can easily preach to the converted among us, but when it comes to the political process, we need to be pragmatic.

Does today’s announcement from the government go far enough? Of course not. But we must support each and every step forward, and remember what we are fighting for.