Seems to be my week for bashing Premier Gladys Berejiklian! Tends to happen when you bury your head in the sand, ignore evidence-based advice, and refuse to listen to the voices of reason.
Our Gladdie doesn’t want pill testing at big event dance parties. Like with the dead fish in the Darling River (see last nights whinge), it’s the people she cares about, and doesn’t want to see any more young people die from drug overdoses, and toxic drugs at said parties! It seems that the thinking is that if pill testing is introduced, it will appear that they are advocating the use of illegal party drugs at these events.
Now, I’m not ashamed to say that I did party drugs back in the 80s & 90s. I would never have been classed as a big time druggie, but whenever Mardi Gras, Sleaze Ball, and any otherbodd occasional dance parties rolled around, I would do an ekkie or some acid. Mind you, I never bought at the parties, and had a regular middle man I got them through who was reliable, and only ever had “clean” drugs. I always had a great time at the parties, didn’t drink alcohol, and drank a lot of overpriced water. It seems we all sailed in the same boat back then, as to my knowledge, there was never any deaths from overdoses at the parties. But the fact is, if for whatever reason they had pill testing back then, and whatever I had tested showed a dangerous result, I would not have taken it. I wanted to have a good time at the parties…not end up a statistic.
I guess we have to be realistic, and acknowledge that there will always be a percentage of people who, despite the best of advice, will decide to try to hedge the bets on their side, and will take drugs irrespective of the danger. But we also have to at least hope that the voice of reason will discourage the majority of people whose pills test negatively will vote in favour of an ongoing life, and dispose of said drugs.
The issue in both these scenarios is choice. If your pills test negatively, and you choose to take them, then you shoulder the risk, though knowing that you are putting yourself in danger of either ending up in A&E, or in the morgue. Pill testing at least gives people choice, when without it, everyone will just take the drugs and cross their fingers.
One of the main concerns about pill testing is that it may provide people with a “false sense of security”, and therefore lead to an increase in drug-related harm.
“What would be horrific would be if you had such a regime, something was deemed safe, and you have multiple deaths as a result,” Ms Berejiklian said in September.
But Dr Caldicott said this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how pill testing works.
“You will not be told at any stage that your drug is safe,” he said.
Prior to the testing process, each person is advised (and required to sign a legal waiver confirming they understand) the test does not provide evidence of drug purity, safety, dosage, or information about how they will individually respond to the substance being tested.
“We advise people that it’s not a medical consult … we don’t know enough about them to tell them whether it is safe for them or not,” Dr Caldicott said.
It has also been suggested that introducing pill testing at music festivals would lead to “an increase in drugs and a greater rates of death and greater harm to our society”.
But Alison Ritter, a drug policy expert from the University of New South Wales who co-authored a global review of drug checking services in 2017, said there is no evidence to support this claim.
“We know that it doesn’t produce an increase in drug use … and there’s no evidence of harm associated with pill testing,” said Professor Ritter.
Both Professor Ritter, director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, and Dr Caldicott said pill testing was about targeting people who already have the intention of consuming illicit substances — and helping to mitigate their risks.
It’s a view backed by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation: “Drug checking does not promote illicit drug taking, and people who choose to get their substances tested have already purchased their drug with the intention to use them.”
Research shows pill testing can reduce harm
Despite concern about pill testing increasing the appeal of illicit substances, research shows it can lead to less drug taking, and help people consume drugs in a safer way.
“What’s clear from the results of the services operating [in Europe] is that people make different choices based on the results of the testing — some choose to put their drugs into an amnesty bin, others choose to take half as much as perhaps they thought they would,” Professor Ritter said.
In the US-Australian study published today in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal, 54 per cent of ecstasy users surveyed said they were less likely to use ecstasy again if they learned their ecstasy contained ‘bath salts’ (synthetic cathinones) or methamphetamine.
Similarly, an evaluation of the UK’s first pill testing trial found one in five substances tested at the festival was not what people expected, and among people mis-sold substances, two thirds chose to hand over further substances to be destroyed.
Lead researcher Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at Durham University, said by identifying toxic and potentially lethal contaminants, the pill testing service was able to reduce drug use and “therefore reduce drug-related harm”.
“There was a 95 per cent reduction in hospital admissions that year when we were testing on site,” Professor Measham told ABC Radio Sydney.
She added that pill testing provided an opportunity for healthcare workers to engage in a dialogue about health and harm with a group of young people who don’t usually access drug and alcohol services.
In April, at Australia’s first pill testing trial, 42 per cent of people who brought drugs for testing reported that their drug consumption behaviour would change as a result of the testing.
Dr Caldicott said in addition to reducing harm at an individual level, pill testing services are able to obtain valuable information about what drugs are circulating on the black market, which can be used to tailor public health alerts and assist law enforcement.
“One of the biggest problems in Australia right now is the diversity of the drug market,” he said.
He said new drugs were emerging at such a rate that it was possible the test would not recognise some substances, in which case, they would be given a ‘red’ classification.
One of the biggest problems is those who keep insisting that their should be NO pill testing, but we should adopt a zero tolerance, and education, approach. We already know these approaches don’t work. Young people are always going to be young people. If they are told not to do something…they will go and do it. And how are they going to police a zero tolerance policy. People will either find alternative ways to smuggle drugs in..and they will, don’t doubt that, or do stupid, impulsive things like taking all their drugs upon seeing police and dogs waiting for them at the entry to events. I truly feel for Anna Wood’s father, after his daughter died of an ecstasy overdose at a dance event in 1995, but he needs to stop his blinkered zero tolerance stance, and look at the evidence for other ways of stopping young partygoers from overdosing, or taking toxic drugs.
Our Premier seems to be on a crusade against pill testing despite many MPs, including those from other states and federal politics, moving in favour of it. There is also a strong public voice calling for pill testing at major events. If we have to be truly honest about it, we know that the parents of many of those attending big dance events, and a long list of journalists, tradies, lawyers, public servants, doctors, police, and yes, politicians (most well into their forties) have done the same in their younger years. Let’s try to avoid hypocrisy.
One of the bigger questions is how to stop the dealers who peddle toxic and adulterated drugs at these events. Once upon a time, you purchased your drugs well before attending events such as Mardi Gras, so they were often “tested” at events leading up to the main party, and you knew what they were like. It is a fact that in the 80s and 90s, drugs were a lot cleaner than they seem to be now, and unpleasant incidences were minimalised.
Personally, I think we need a broad, open-minded approach to drug use amongst partygoers. Education, yes! But not lecturing! Not shaking fingers! Perhaps we need some shock tactics, like those used to stop smoking. Some peer education would be advantageous…if kids think it’s their parents talking, they won’t listen! And pill testing, but not just at the events. There should be safe places made available for anonymous testing before events take place, and if reliable, personal pill testing kits.
It serves no purpose turning a blind eye to drug-g use at major dance events. No matter how you feel about it, the hard truth is that partygoers are not going to stop taking drugs. We have to be careful that we do not create situations whereby parties are pushed underground in remote warehouses and sporting venues, without the benefits of medical personnel to handle emergencies, and a long way from hospitals.
We need to care about our youngsters. They should be able to go to big events, as we did in our day, and be able to party safely, be it with or without drugs. Pill testing will at least stack the odds in their favour.
Tim Alderman 2019