Victorian government discussions with experts on pill testing are long overdue, says Buninyong MP Geoff Howard, after spending time at Lexton electronic music festival Rainbow Serpent at the weekend.
Howard, who chairs a state inquiry into drug law reform, met with festival management, police and the emergency response manager on site while experiencing the festival culture and drug use first hand.
He is one of the only Victorian politicians who has said they were open to considering pill testing at music festivals, while Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Police Lisa Neville remain firmly opposed to the idea.
“The bottom line is that although police did check people going into the festival with sniffer dogs, talking to some of the festival goers, people did have drugs at the festival and used them discreetly,” Howard said.
“It is about dealing with that reality. When you know that there are drugs at a festival it is a matter of how you can ensure people going there using drugs are as safe as possible.
“I have no problem with pill testing being done on a trial basis to see how it can work.”
Pill testing has not yet been conducted at a music festival in Australia.
The service, which is well established in Europe and the United Kingdom, allows festival goers to provide a sample of a substance they may be considering taken to be analysed, identified and discussed with a healthcare professional.
Proponents of harm minimisation are working to set up a pill testing trial at an upcoming music festival in the ACT, after a government approved trial at Spilt Milk Festival last year did not go ahead due to issues with documentation.
President of Harm Reduction Australia Gino Vumbaca said government and society should not be afraid of the evidence that shows the benefits of pill testing.
“We are not condoning drug use, but we are living in the real world,” Vumbaca said.
“The pragmatic view is that there will be people who do take drugs and we should minimise the risk that can occur to them.”
At least nine people were taken to hospital after overdosing at a music festival at Melbourne’s Festival Hall on Friday night from drugs which included PMA - para-Methoxyamphetamine. PMA is a stimulant often sold as or mistaken for ecstasy.
Fiona Measham, a professor of crimonology and the director of The Loop, an organisation offering pill testing services in the UK, attended Rainbow Serpent Festival at the weekend.
She said there was concern that the same drugs that had caused the overdoses in Melbourne could be circulating on site at the Lexton festival.
“There has been a lot of concern here because of the hospitalisations in Melbourne on Friday night, and nobody knows what is circulating on site, including medical staff, the police and event organisers,” Measham said.
“It is only a couple of hours away, people could have something similar on site here. This is one of the instances where if we could have tested what was on site, then we could have reduced that fear.”
Howard visited the Secret Gardens Festival in the UK last year with members of the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee to see pill testing in action.
Measham’s charity The Loop first introduced pill testing to UK festivals in 2016, and will offer their services at almost 20 music festivals in the UK this year.
“We have found for two in ten people, their drugs aren’t what they bought. When we tell them that, about a quarter of people will throw away those drugs themselves but another quarter or so will give us the drugs to dispose of ourselves,” she said.
“About two thirds of the people who have bought drugs have been mis-sold something and have no intention of taking it.
“This is not about encouraging drug use or endorsing it in any way. It is about identifying dangerous drugs that might be on site. We can put out warnings and hopefully that can reduce medical incidents and hospitalisations and the risk of a death on site.”
Pill testing services in the UK first started behind the scenes testing for paramedics and police. The service transitioned to offering pill testing for the public at festivals after discussions with police, medical facilities, festival promoters and government, Measham said.
But medical experts in Australia have become frustrated at the Victorian Government’s refusal to discuss drug testing.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said neither he, nor Victoria Police, were prepared to reconsider their position on pill testing.
“There is no safe level at which these substances can be taken and there was proof positive of that yesterday (at Festival Hall),” he said at a press conference on Sunday.
“Victoria Police’s position remains absolute. We are not having pill testing in this state, not under a government I will lead anyway.”
Victorian Minister for Police Lisa Neville said there were no plans to introduce legislation to allow for pill testing at events in Victoria.
“Our position on pill testing has not changed – advice from Victoria Police consistently tells us it can give people a false, and potentially fatal, sense of security about illicit drugs,” she said.
“These tests are unreliable as they can only indicate the possible presence of a class of drug, not its concentration or the presence of other dangerous ingredients.”
David Caldicott, an emergency consultant and member of the collaborative that will be running pill testing in the ACT, has seen people overdose on drugs on a regular basis and said it has affected him on a personal level.
Caldicott attended Rainbow Serpent Festival to conduct research on current drug use, and said he had been going to the Lexton festival for over five years.
He said Australia’s prohibition approach to drugs had failed.
“The fact that so many people overdose is proof that the market is dangerous. That can’t be used as an argument against pill testing, it is proof that what we are doing about it is not adequate,” Caldicott said.
“Australian drug policy has stalled in an era of ‘just say no’ and ‘tough on drugs’. Overdoses are happening on government watch and under a prohibition approach towards drugs which has failed globally.
“Australians have a decision; to try a targeted approach where young Australians use fewer drugs, or an approach where fewer Australians are harmed by drug use.
“Do you want to have young people come home alive where we can discuss their decision to take drugs, or do we want to sacrifice young people to prove a point?”
Caldicott said requests for meetings with the Victorian Government to discuss drug testing had been declined for several years.
“I think it is a technique in politics in Australia that if you don’t want to consider another opinion you ensure that you never hear another opinion,” he said.
“When kids don’t want to hear they need to go to bed they put their hands over their ears and start screaming loudly. This is what is happening in regards to pill testing in Australia.
“On a number of occasions the Andrews government has said they are against it predominantly on the advice of Victoria Police. I have never worked in a jurisdiction where health decisions are being made by law enforcement. It is bizarre.
“The world is changing as far as it’s drug policy is concerned. The global philosophy of war on drugs has failed.”
Rainbow Serpent Festival organiser Tim Harvey said he welcomed the opportunity to work with authorities on any evidence based harm reduction strategy, especially those that have proven to be ‘incredibly successful’ such as pill testing.
Howard and the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee will present their findings to the government in March.
Howard and pill testing experts say they could see the service working at festivals in Victoria, but all agree change must begin with open discussions about pill testing with the government.
“We need to keep having this discussion and people who have a viewpoint need to share it with the government and eventually change will happen,” Howard said.