Festivals Have Returned: Time To Re-Open the Pill-Testing Debate

pill testing

As the Australian festivals begin to be announced, the age old debate over pill testing and checking needs to resurface once again. The topic has already re-entered public discourse, with New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to fully legalise drug checking and testing at music festivals and in general public life.

The new legislation acts as a replacement to their previously trial law allowing pill testing services temporarily and was set to expire at the end of the year. The law is now permanently extended after a third reading last week and will come into full effect on December the 7th. The move has already been praised highly by experts.

A unique section of the new law is that drug checking will not just be implemented at music festivals, but in every facet of everyday life, making the service available to a range of different communities, both in the entertainment sector, but also in social services. Executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, Sarah Helm commented on the change in legislation to VICE World News stating, “It’s really significant and a moment to celebrate.”

“This will prevent harm and save lives. Drug checking is a hugely effective harm reduction tool as it gives people accurate information to make safer decisions. We’d now like to see services expand to reach more people.

“Drug checking has been happening in New Zealand for a number of years in a legal grey area, so the idea isn’t new and the public debate has been won.”

Australia already has had significant debates surrounding the idea of pill testing. The change in perspectives on dealing with drug deaths at NSW festivals over the summer of 2018 and 2019 led to a NSW coroners report into music festival deaths across a 3 year period.

The deputy state coroner at the time, Harriet Grahame recommended pill testing as the most appropriate solution, the polar opposite strategy to the current and proceeding laws in NSW.

Previous premier, Gladys Berejiklian was openly against the idea, and a war on festivals proceeded in New South Wales. Instead of the recommended drug checking strategy to reduce drug related harm and deaths, the government enforced strict festival licenses were introduced in 2019, which saw any event with more than 2000 people where music was the main attraction were required to comply a strict set of guidelines and a thorough application process.

It has become blatantly obvious that increased police presence, strip searching and sniffer dogs are not the solution to drug related deaths at music festivals.

The mother of teenager Alex Ross-King, after losing her daughter after she passed from MDMA toxicity in a NSW festival in January of 2019 urged the government to keep our festival goers “safe”, and to “ensure no other parent, brother, sister, family or friend must ever endure the unmeasurable anguish we have, and to again make Australia world leaders in harm minimisation.”

In the inquest by Grahame, it was found that Ross-King took an high dosage of MDMA before arriving to the venue because she was afraid of being caught with drugs by the police. Prevention and fear tactics did not discourage the teenager from taking the drug, rather, encouraged it in an unsafe way.

While this seems like an anecdotal piece of evidence, our good friends across the boarder in the ACT, and across the globe have empirically tested the power of drug checking, and harm minimisation strategies for festival goers.

An independent report on pill testing in Australia at a Canberra based festival found that of 230 participants, 7 of their drugs contained potential deadly ingredients. All 7 of those users discarded their drugs. Dr Anna Olsen, the senior researcher of the trial told news GP, “When they left, they said they were much more likely to look at health services and brochures and quality places for their health information, which is a good news story.”

In New Zealand, which drug checking laws were today passed, also ran a similar study, with 68% of people who used a drug checking service said their attitudes and behaviours surrounding drug taking changed.

The world and their opinions on drug taking is changing rapidly and with festival after festival being announced in Australia, there’s no more important time than now to resurface the conversation on pill testing and drug checking, both in music festival environments and socially in our day to day lives.

The evidence suggests it, every major drug body in the world supports it, yet Australia just feels like its lagging behind.

Words by Parry Tritsiniotis

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Parry Talks, and also writes.