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Nation-first pill testing trial at Canberra music festival

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Australia’s first pill testing trial will be held at a music festival in Canberra later this year, prompting applause from drug reform advocates but concern from the Federal Government.

Revellers at the Spilt Milk festival in November will be able to have their illicit substances tested for purity and authenticity, and will have the option of safely disposing of the pills if they turn out to be not what they thought they had purchased.

ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris said the testing would be provided free by the Safety Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE), which is led by Harm Reduction Australia, Australian Drug Observatory, Noffs Foundation, DanceWize and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

A similar proposal for another festival in May was denied.

Ms Fitzharris said the decision had been made after careful assessment of the STA-SAFE proposal, and of pill testing schemes in New Zealand and Canada.

“We need to find the right balance between letting young people know it’s illegal to take drugs, they can be very harmful, but also being realistic because we’ve seen deaths at festivals, five in 2015 alone, so if that helps to keep people safe, it’s worth doing,” Ms Fitzharris said.

“Pill testing means young people who are considering taking drugs can be informed about what’s really in their pills, and how potent they are, and it creates an opportunity to remind them of the risks before they make the final decision to take a drug.”

While the AMA has always supported a range of drug harm minimisation measures, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon raised concerns that the trial might send the wrong message.

“We do need to do better but we also need real evidence that something works,” Dr Gannon told The Project.

“And the last thing we would want to do is give people a false sense of security about taking illegal drugs cooked up in someone’s bath tub.”

The AMA is concerned that pill testing does not entirely remove the risks associated with taking illicit drugs, as people react to drugs differently, and may also be influenced by the amount of drug consumed, gender, age, weight and other substances consumed such as alcohol.

The announcement coincided with the launch of a new national TV and online advertising campaign cracking down on ice and party drugs, aimed at school leavers who are preparing to celebrate the end of their school education.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said while the pill testing trial was a matter for the ACT Government, the Federal Government did not support it “as a matter of principle”.

“Saying that any drug is okay is not okay,” Mr Hunt told Weekend Sunrise.

“People can have a reaction to any drug. There are no safe illicit drugs, and I think that’s a very important message.”

Festival goers will be able to attend a medical tent and provide a sample of a drug to be tested using laboratory grade equipment for free.

After receiving the results, the person will have the option of keeping the pill or discarding it in an amnesty bin containing bleach.

Regardless of the test outcome, trained drug counsellors will warn festival goers about the health risks of illegal drugs.

Dr David Caldicott, an emergency medicine specialist and advocate for Harm Reduction Australia, said the move would stop people taking drugs and prevent deaths.

Research from overseas programs showed up to 60 per cent of people who had their pills tested went on to throw them away, he said.

ACT Chief Police Officer Justine Saunders said ACT Policing supported the program and had been actively working with ACT Government and stakeholders.

“ACT Policing will be patrolling the festival to ensure patrons enjoy the event in a safe environment,” she said.

“Police will not enter the health facility that contains the pill testing station unless requested to do so by festival organisers, security staff or emergency services or in response to an emergency situation.”

MARIA HAWTHORNE

 

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