The Greens have renewed their calls for free pill testing, in an urge to the Victorian Labor Government to take up an offer to establish a free pill testing trial. It calls growing calls from all around Australia, as experts say pill testing is essential to saving lives.
The offer was made by Harm Reduction Australia and Pill Testing Australia, who want to run a trial at a summer music festival similar to one currently being trialled in ACT. The offer came after two deaths of people taking untested drugs.
Pill testing is legal in ACT and in February Queensland announced it was approving pill-testing trials. But despite widespread support from medical bodies, rollout throughout the rest of Australia has been a slow process.
How does it work?
Speaking to PEDESTRIAN.TV, Clinical Lead for Pill Testing Australia and CanTEST Dr David Caldicott said it begins with people coming to the facility, where they are asked what they think they have and about their drug consumption habits.
“We’re keen to do the whole process with the patron, not only to build bonds but also because drug policy can be extremely stigmatising,” he said.
“They can come through and watch us do the analysis, chemists can take them through the process.”
Tests are done to determine exactly what the person has, as well as the dose.
The whole process is designed to provide a place for users to test their drugs without fear of legal repercussions and to help people stay safe. People are also offered health advice.
Research has shown that drug checking services do have an effect. In New Zealand, research by Victoria University of Wellington found that 68 per cent of festival-goers who used drug checking services said they changed their behaviour once they saw the results.
Why are people calling for it?
Caldicott said that people are calling for pill testing quite simply “because all the evidence supports it”.
“People are using drugs whether we approve it or not,” he said.
“As doctors we are forced to deal with the reality that people are using drugs, and we need to make sure that people who do use drugs don’t get harmed. The easiest way to do that is to identify what drugs they’re taking.”
The Greens also said that governments need to listen to the evidence. They pointed to last month’s open letter calling on the Victorian government to implement pill testing and a public early warning system.
“The evidence is clear that when young people have access to pill testing services they’re much less likely to take drugs, or be at risk of overdose,” Victorian Greens drug harm reduction spokesperson Aiv Puglielli said in a statement.
“Each day this government refuses to listen to expert health advice and back pill testing is another day a young person could be at risk of overdose or drug-related death.”
Ultimately, the idea is to improve safety. Caldicott says they’re not there to stop people taking drugs. Although some people might abandon their drugs after a test, others might change how they take them, such as by taking less.
“Young people are always making foolish decisions, we are helping them make smarter decisions using science,” he said.
Why are governments reluctant?
Despite two-thirds of the Australian public supporting pill testing, governments are slow to pick it up. When asked about arguments against it, Caldicott said it was “very hard to say it’s academic”.
“Whatever arguments they had that we can’t measure dose, or we can’t do this or that, those are now nonsense. They always were nonsense.”
Legal issues also appear to be a concern for governments. Back in 2019, then Federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming pointed to the risk of being sued as a reason for opposition.
“Currently [pill] testers claim to be indemnified, but it is obvious that the risk is completely borne by the ACT government [in the trial last year],” he said.
“Inevitably, a festival-overdose will involve a tested pill, leading to civil action against testers, organisers and sky-rocketing indemnity. Then what?”
So what now?
Well, it’s up to governments to look at the evidence and work towards safer policy. Caldicott said that if the Victorian government took up a trial, they would fund it and help get it set up, hopefully in time for the summer festivals.
At the end of the day, he says, drug testing is just good medical practice.
“It’s better to look at what someone has before they get sick, than it is to cut it out of them when they’re dead later on,” he said.
So where does each state stand?
Northern Territory – Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner told ABC in 2021 he was open to the idea of a pill testing trial, but said for it to work it would have to be based on the evidence.
“We will look at what’s happening down south and make an informed decision off the back of that,” he said.
Tasmania – The Tasmanian government has ruled out allowing pill testing, despite experts calling for it to be introduced. Attorney-General Elise Archer said in a press briefing in March that the Liberal government did not support pill testing and would not introduce any legislation to decriminalise illegal drugs.
“Drugs that are illegal are exactly that for many reasons,” she said.
“They often result in addiction and serious medical issues, as well as destroy lives, ultimately lining the pockets of criminals.”
South Australia – Speaking to CityMag, South Australian Health Minister Chris Picton said the South Australian Labor Party was consistent in “not supporting” pill testing.
“We released and are now implementing a comprehensive policy regarding illicit drugs that involves more rehabilitation beds and more support to families of drug users,” he said.
Western Australia – In 2019, then-Minister for Health and now-Premier Roger Cook said that although pill testing was not something that was on the cards it could be in store in the future.
“The McGowan government has no plans to introduce pill testing in Western Australia,” he said in an ABC interview.
“However we will continue to monitor emerging pill testing research and related communications, including the outcomes of the Australian Capital Territory pill-testing trial.
“People who choose to take illicit drugs should understand that it’s not safe and they are putting themselves and others at serious risk of harm. So we encourage people not to use.”Queensland – Pill testing is moving ahead in Queensland after a trial was approved in February. At the time, Minister for Health and Ambulance Services Yvette D’Ath said pill testing was all about harm minimisation.