A number of drug overdoses and deaths on the mainland have led to health professionals and a former Australian Federal Police Commissioner to again call for pill testing to be introduced at music festivals.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation stands firm on its message that there is no safe level of drug use, but it also acknowledges people are and will continue to take drugs at music festivals and venues.
Foundation spokeswoman Melinda Lucas said pill testing does not promote or condone drug use, it gives people an opportunity to test the strength and key ingredients of a drug they have already purchased, with the intention of consuming.
“Evidence shows that people who attend a pill testing service are more likely to discard or change the way they use a drug, when they are informed about its ingredients. This can help to reduce and prevent overdoses and deaths,” she said.
“The Alcohol and Drug Foundation supports further pill testing trials across Australia, especially given successes overseas and in Australia’s first pill testing trial in Canberra last year.”
The Canberra trial tested 83 substances in a variety of forms, including capsules, pills, powder, crystal and one unclassified.
More than 80 per cent of festival-goers thought the substance they had tested was MDMA, but only 45 per cent of the illicit drugs were found to have MDMA as the major component.
Pill testing has once again been the topic of discussion after a number of overdoses and drug-related deaths at music festivals on the mainland in recent weeks.
“The benefits of pill testing go beyond being able to determine what the chemical make-up of a drug is and providing this level of information,” Ms Lucas said.
“When a person has their drug tested at a pill-testing tent, they are actively engaged with a health professional to talk about their drug use.”
Testing pills is a bit like heroin injecting rooms, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Harry Nespolon said. “Heroin is still illegal but governments have made a decision to minimise harm,” he said.
Tasmanian Police Minister Michael Ferguson said the government would not provide quality control for illegal drug dealers.
“There is no safe use of any illicit drug and it's reckless to suggest otherwise,” he said.
But Dr Nespolon said there was a distorted view that pill testing somehow made taking drugs legal.
“People are going to do it so we should minimise the harm and make sure people actually get home from concerts.
“I’m sure police officers would much rather spend time arresting drug dealers than telling parents their child is dead.”
Dr Nespolon said pill testing is not a law and enforcement issue, it is a health and safety issue.
“People often get that mixed up,” he said.
“People are going to take drugs so you might as well minimise the risk of people getting sick from them.”
Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer voiced his support for pill testing in an opinion piece printed in The Examiner on Thursday.
“I have seen way too many lives ruined by drug use and abuse, way too many families torn apart, and way too much heartache caused for too many mums and dads,” he said.
“And be sure, it’s no fun delivering a death message to a mother or father.”
Mr Palmer, who labelled himself the straightest guy in town when it comes to drugs, suspects pill testing will be an election issue that will define the courage of the nation’s leaders.
“Surely there is only one priority here and that is to try any initiative that may serve to reduce the likelihood of harm and save lives,” he said.
Police resources are limited, so Dr Nespolon said their time would be better spent catching those who make drugs instead of low-level users.
A Tasmanian Labor spokesman said the party supported a harm-minimisation approach to illicit drug use.
“The reality is, for as long as the ultra-conservative Michael Ferguson remains both Health and Police Minister there is no hope that drug use will be treated as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue,” the spokesman said.
In government, the Labor spokesman said they would work with health professionals on delivering more harm minimisation programs in Tasmania.
The health professionals agreed having open and honest conversations about drugs and their risks with children was very important.
“There are lots of great resources for parents wanting to talk to their children about alcohol and other drugs on the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s website,” Ms Lucas said
Dr Nespolon said talking to children about illicit drug use can be difficult, but it was important to ensure they understand the risks.
Harm minimisation is also the responsibility of festival and venue organisers, with support programs such as DanceWize readily available to provide trained peer support workers to assist with all types of scenarios.
Ms Lucas said pill testing has the potential to save lives, but it is only one part of a suite of interventions to reduce drug-related harm.
“Festivals and venues can put in place a number of different things to reduce risks - these include ensuring freely available water and shade and providing a chill out space or sanctuary zone for punters to have a rest from the festival if they feel the need to,” Ms Lucas said.
“Festivals and venue organisers should also ensure the presence of onsite emergency support, such as St Johns Ambulance support, is well publicised.”
For more information about support call the Alcohol and Drug Foundation on 1300 85 85 84 or visit adf.org.au/help-support/