Several drug-related deaths at festivals in 2018 and 2019 have reignited the debate around pill testing. One of the most dangerous things about taking recreational drugs at a music festival is the risk of consuming dangerous substances alongside the drugs. Also, uncertainty about the strength and purity can leave people unsure about how much to take, and thus lead to accidental overdoses.
Groups such as Pill Testing Australia, the Noffs Foundation and Harm Reduction Australia are urging the NSW Government to introduce testing. Even the former Australian Federal Police Commission Mick Palmer is supportive of pill testing.
Why would a music festival need pill testing?
Studies have shown that the majority of people choose not to take their drugs if it is found there is a dangerous substance mixed in it, that they did not previously know about. This leads to a reduction of drugs with dangerous mix-ins, as people are less likely to return to buy from the same supplier, and the market in general becomes safer. A 2018 analysis by Durham University, of the UK’s first pill testing trial, found a 95% reduction in hospital admissions after pill testing.
The ACT government has confirmed it will have a second trial of pill testing at ‘Groovin the Moo’ in April. Last year the program found that more than half of the drugs were contaminated with a dangerous substance such as paint fillers, antihistamines, toothpaste, dietary supplements and oil. Of the 85 substances tested, more than half of the drugs that people believed to be MDMA, were found to be contaminated with other chemicals (read the report here). The pill testing process at ‘Groovin the Moo’ is that festival-goers queue outside a tent, and sign a waiver, then speak to a peer educator who warns them that pill testing doesn’t guarantee the safety of the drugs. Then a sample of their drug is tested by a chemist, and the festival-goer has another consultation with a peer educator. A major advantage of pill testing is that testing booths are able to give information and safety warnings to users who pass through them.
Pill testing is available in other countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, France and Germany. The volunteer group KnowYourStuffNZ offers pill testing at festivals in New Zealand, and are supported by the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
The government’s position
The state government’s position is that pill testing will send the message to young people that it is okay to take illicit drugs. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said pill testing would give people a ‘false sense of security’. (This is a risk however, that appears to be adequately dealt with by the discussions with peer educators explicitly warning festival-goers that there is no guarantee of safety.) NSW has also increased the penalties for suppliers of drugs to a maximum of 20 years.
This zero tolerance approach is clearly not working. The NSW Coroner is currently holding an inquest into five deaths at music festivals. Since these recent deaths, the Premier has said she would consider pill testing if there was evidence of its success. This is a softer stance than previously stated, but still ignores the plethora of evidence for the effectiveness of pill testing.
There is proof that harm-minimisation in the form of pill testing is more effective than a hard-line approach. An informed decision is safer than an uninformed one.