My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 20 November 2018

by ray goodlass

There is a simple way to save lives

As summer approaches so too does the music festival season, and regrettably we will read stories of many preventable deaths, which could be avoided if the state government would only adopt a common-sense harm minimisation approach to pill testing.

Instead, Premier Gladys Berejiklian established what she touted as an ‘expert’ panel to address the issue after the deaths at the Defqon 1 dance festival in Penrith. The result was a headline reading ‘NSW to introduce tougher drug penalties, but no pill testing, after festival deaths’ (Guardian Australia).

The new measures recommended by the panel included on-the-spot fines for drug possession and tougher penalties for dealers who supply drugs to people who die are among new measures proposed.

The police commissioner, Mick Fuller, a member of the panel, said the belief that pill-testing was going to save lives in NSW was a “myth”.

Yet doctors, harm minimisation advocates and drug researchers say there’s a simple solution to stop young Australians dying at music festivals, but it’s the one thing authorities refuse to try. That simple solution is pill testing.

Advocacy groups, including STA-Safe and some of the nation’s leading drug researchers, have begged the government to drop its “zero-tolerance” stance, insisting the answer is simple and lives will be saved if the government changed its approach.

“You would hope a tragedy like this would’ve pressed reset on the government’s approach to drugs but it’s clear that hasn’t happened,” Greens MP David Shoebridge told news.com.au.

Few festivals pushed a zero drug tolerance policy harder and had a stronger police presence than Defqon.1, according to Mr Shoebridge.

The festival, which features hardstyle and electronic dance music DJs, reportedly has a stronger drug-taking culture than some other Australian festivals.

But the reputation has led to Defqon.1’s organisers paying for police presence at the festivals in a bid to curb the drug culture.

“Defqon.1 signed on to the most hardcore zero-tolerance drug policy. They actively worked with, and paid for, a lot of police to attend and support them. There was a very active police presence,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Pill testing and amnesty bins have been debated as an option to reduce the risk of potential overdoses or deaths from contaminated pills at music festivals for more than a decade.

However, “Anyone who is advocating pill testing is giving the green light to drugs — that is absolutely unacceptable. Do not take them … Pill testing is not a solution,” Ms Berejiklian said.

Ted Noffs Foundation spokesman Kieran Palmer told Today the Premier had her “head in the sand”.

“We have the evidence. Shutting down festivals, getting tough on drugs, telling kids to ‘just say no’ doesn’t work. It doesn’t change behaviour.”

Indeed. pill testing advocates finally received the home soil evidence they needed in May when a pill testing trial at Canberra’s Groovin The Moo festival revealed two people had been stopped from taking deadly drugs.

The trial, which tested 128 batches, found a number of worrying chemicals, the worst of which was a drug called N-ethyl pentylone.

At the time, emergency doctor and STA-Safe representative David Caldicott told news.com.au the drug was particularly concerning “because it’s killed people”.

“The drug is known to cause mass-casualty overdoses, where you can have groups of 10-20 people just dropping at festivals,” he said.

Working in the emergency department of Calvary Hospital in Canberra, Dr Caldicott has become one of Australia’s most vocal advocates for a harm minimisation approach to illicit drug use.

Thankfully and following David Shoebridge’s comments, the Australian Greens have revealed a plan to open 18 pill-testing services across Australia at a cost of $16m, saying the policy would disrupt drug dealing networks and cut preventable deaths.

The Australian Greens parliamentary leader, Richard Di Natale, a former drug and alcohol doctor, said the war on drugs had failed because 1 million Australians still used ecstasy and cocaine every year and a number of them were dying because they had no idea what they were consuming.

He said the pill-testing services, which would allow people to test drugs for dangerous substances and their level of purity, would help Australians who were going to take drugs anyway make more informed choices.

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