Michael White, Executive Officer of the SA Network of Drug and Alcohol Services told InDaily testing illicit drugs at music festivals had been shown to be an effective harm minimisation intervention where it has been tried in European cities.
He is calling on police, health groups, festival organisers and the State Government to gather for a round-table discussion on the intervention – which he concedes places police and medical staff in difficult legal and ethical territory.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed a motion calling on the Federal Government to work with state and territory governments to “urgently introduce trials of pill testing for the upcoming festivals season”.
White said the benefits of pill testing extended beyond advising people if their drugs have been cut with toxic substances.
“It enables drug and alcohol workers or clinicians to talk to young people about their substance use,” said White.
“We need to be able to provide people with clear guidance.
“It’s not necessarily going to eliminate all of the harms … but it’s a good intervention.
“What we’d look to see is a round-table … at which all of the interested parties could come together can have a discussion about what might be a way forward.”
He said on-site pill testing had been shown to be effective, on a small scale, at music festivals in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
But, he warned, “it’s not a silver bullet”.
“It has to be part of a range of strategies,” he said, conceding that the evidence for pill testing remained scarce in Australia.
“It probably needs some more evidence behind it, but we can only get that evidence by doing it… we want to know it actually works.”
SA festivals promoter Sacha Sewell told InDaily he was open to the introduction of pill testing at events.
He said he “100 per cent support[s] anything that minimises harm”.
However he said legislation to allow pill testing at festivals would have to be water-tight before he would consider allowing it at one of his festivals, adding that he is “not a medical person”.
Substance Abuse Minister Leesa Vlahos said the State Government did not support pill testing at music festivals and that it is illegal to possess or supply a controlled drug.
“On-site drug checking is unable to replicate the standards of forensic testing in identifying the composition, strength and purity of each substance present in a drug sample,” she said.
“Event organisers are encouraged to plan early with emergency services, including the SA Ambulance Service and SAPOL, to discuss any risks early and implement strategies to reduce these risks.
“The best way for young South Australians to avoid overdose, and potentially death, is to not take these dangerous drugs in the first place.”
She said there was a range of alternative strategies currently in place to improve safety at public events, including “chill-out areas, accessible free drinking water and dedicated first-aid services”.
But Director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University Professor Ann Roche told InDaily introducing pill testing had the potential to save young people from overdoses.
“There’s every indication it will reduce harm and save lives,” she said.
“If people are given advice [about high safety risks] people will discard those drugs.
“Word gets out very quickly [if] things have been cut with toxic substances – it’s certainly worth trying.”
But University of South Australia Professor of Pharmacology Jason White told InDaily the intervention was not well-supported by evidence, and could cause harm by appearing to endorse drug use.
“I’m going to have some reservations about pill testing,” he said.
“It has to be treated with considerable caution because [the testing] can give people information that something they’re taking is safe when it’s not.”
He said that while there appears to be a popular conception that the presence of sniffer dogs may cause festival-goers to rapidly consume drugs, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence one way of the other (about) sniffer dogs”.
The President of the Australian Medical Association in SA Dr Janice Fletcher said the effects of pill testing at music festivals remained unclear.
“The jury is still out on pill testing at large events such as music festivals,” she said.
“There are a range of legal and ethical questions around pill testing – some people have indicated that if they found their pill contained another substance, they would on-sell it, or take half.
“So, you cannot assume people will discard such pills.
“You also don’t want to give people the impression that a particular drug is ‘safe’ just because it does not have something horrible and unexpected in it.”
She said pill testing was unable to “factor in” how an individual’s body would react to substances if consumed.
“Other factors that come into play are heat, metabolism and the person’s size, other substances that have been consumed, medications or health conditions.
“Also, it’s not just what is in it, but the strength and purity – and quantity.
“The idea that pills have been verified by a ‘test’ could make people more complacent about other serious risks.”
She said the AMA supported “ethical, medically supervised research to clarify the risks and benefits of pill testing within the Australian context”.
The Senate motion also urged the removal of sniffer dogs from major events.
Proponents argue that the use of sniffer dogs may encourage festival-goers to quickly ingest drugs to avoid detection.
Sewell said that “anecdotally” festival-goers sometimes felt compelled to consume all of their drugs at once to avoid detection by sniffer dogs, and that deploying sniffer dogs “seems like an enormous [use] of resources that achieves very little”.
Neither South Australian Police Association or SA Police responded to InDaily’s request for comment before deadline.
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