Five dead in four months at New South Wales festivals – is pill-testing the answer?
Pill-testing has once again sparked debate after the most recent death of Alex Ross-King, who passed away at the FOMO festival in NSW.
A 2018 survey found that pill-testing is largely supported by the Australian public but is being blocked by police and politicians, especially in NSW and Victoria.
But who’s right?
Will pill testing help reduce drug overdoses or will it have the opposite effect and encourage drug taking?
Firstly, what is pill-testing?
Pill-testing takes a sample of a drug and tests it against a database to determine the substances present and results fall into a three-step classification: white, yellow or red.
A white reading indicates that the drug is what is expected. Yellow indicated the drug contains something other than expected, and red indicates the presence of something considered to be dangerous or an unidentifiable substance.
People argue that pill-testing results will show drugs as safe or good but Pill Testing Australia makes it clear that the test is about informing people about what is in the drugs and how to protect themselves.
Trialled at Groovin the Moo in April 2018, pill-testing was deemed a success with 125 people having pills tested. The testing did have an effect with 42% of participants saying they would change their behaviour, 12% saying they would use less and 18% saying they wouldn’t take any drugs.
Unfortunately, even after the success of Groovin the Moo, NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian thinks there isn’t enough evidence and believes pill testing will do more harm than good. “We need to keep setting out the strongest message that taking these illicit drugs kills. We ask young people not to do it.”
If you scroll though the comment section on Facebook for a few minutes the arguments for and against pill-testing falls under one of two headings: harm minimisation and zero tolerance. Even in my office we were divided by this.
My office was broken into these two arguments; simply don’t do drugs vs if we can reduce the harm.
Those that I’ve argued this topic with, often their first thoughts are that people know the risk of drugs and they just shouldn’t be taking them. The issue I find with this is that to expect people to never take drugs is unrealistic. Drugs will always be available and people will take them. Pill-testing makes people more aware of the substances in drugs and the dangers they present.
Harm minimisation tactics are not new in Australia. Seat Belts were introduced in the 1970s. Random breath tests and helmets were introduced in the 1980s. Road safety laws didn’t increase reckless behaviour on the roads. The safe sex campaign and easier access to condoms didn’t increase the cases of AIDS. And when alcohol related violence started rising they introduced lockout laws and restricted alcohol.
Each of these campaigns faced criticism but they were useful in protecting Australians. Pill-testing has been used in Europe for over 20 years with evidence to prove its success. The trial at Groovin the Moo showed there was a potential for success.
Pill-testing will not completely eliminate all harms associated with drug use but there is a chance it could help reduce the harms.
Some people in the office are still on the fence about what is the best option for reducing drug related deaths at festivals but as one person highlighted is their harm in a pill-testing trial?
One festival is not enough to determine if pill-testing is effective. Trialling in a number of festivals over a few months is a better way to see if pill-testing has a chance of minimising the harm.
I’ll leave you with the words of Alex Ross-King’s grandmother, Denise Doig, “If it saves one life; one life is a life.”