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As GTM mulls legality, researcher says pill testing could save lives

On-site festival pill testing, of the kind common in Austria, the Netherlands and, most recently, Britain, could reduce the harm caused by drug use and potentially save festivalgoers’ lives, according to major new review of drug policy out of Australia.

The publication of ‘“Worth the test?” Pragmatism, pill testing and drug policy in Australia’, published in the Harm Reduction Journal today and shared under embargo with IQ, comes as Cattleyard Promotions – the promoter behind Groovin the Moo, one of Australia’s biggest music festivals – weighs up whether to introduce pill testing at the 2018 events, in what would be the first full-scale trial down under.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a potential trial at the Canberra festival, which takes place on 29 April, has the backing of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government and police force, but promoters remain concerned over legal issues – despite pill-testing consortium Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) offering legal indemnity to Cattleyard if it allows drug testing.

A spokeswoman for Cattleyard says the promoter needs clarification on who is legally liable for the trial. “As pill testing has never been trialled before in Australia, the decision to implement it is not solely ours, as there are multiple stakeholders involved in undertaking the exercise,” she says.

“Some of the complexities that we are working through involve clarification around patron protection and legal ramifications for those who participate. We are also working through guidelines relating to insurances and liability.”

Two teenagers, including a 15-year-old girl, overdosed on drugs at Groovin the Moo 2016.

“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality”

In ‘Worth the test?’, Andrew Groves of Deakin University in Victoria examines evidence in support of pill testing to reduce fatalities caused by party drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, at festivals, clubs and raves. He compares Australia’s “inadequate” current approach, which centres on prevention, with attitudes in other countries, such as Portugal, Austria and the Netherlands, where the focus is on harm reduction.

Dr Groves reveals that Austrian initiative chEckiT has seen two-thirds of users binning their drugs when they discovered their content, while “a similar project in the Netherlands found that pill testing did not increase the use of party drugs, which is often perceived as a risk of such initiatives”.

“Although considered radical at the time, these measures have been effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, and problems for drug users and the wider community,” says Dr Groves. “The examples evaluated in this study support the idea that party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing, rather than criminal justice responses.”

In the UK, meanwhile, pill-testing charity The Loop is already working with a number of festivals, including Kendal Calling and Boomtown Fair, and recently called for the introduction of similar ‘drug-testing hubs’ in city centres as a means of stemming a rise in drug-related deaths.

“The most surprising finding of our research is that the evidence has clearly identified the inadequacy of existing punitive, zero-tolerance strategies across several countries,” continues Dr Groves, “and yet such policies often remain embedded in government legislative action. While we still need further evaluation of how best to implement pill testing and other harm reduction initiatives, the evidence suggests that they are useful and there is widespread support from the community and practitioners in the field.

“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality.”

“Party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing”

Jon Drape of festival production outfit Ground Control told IQ in 2016 that around 25% of those who tested their drugs with the Loop at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party opted to bin them after discovering their content. There were 80 “substances of concern” discovered at SGP 2016, including extremely high-strength ecstasy, ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA, he explained.

Previous attempts to get pill testing off the ground in Australia have been unsuccessful. While harm-reduction activist Will Tregoning said in August 2016 there would be pill testing at a festival in Australia in 2017, the festival in question – Spilt Milk – pulled out with six weeks to go, citing “insufficient” documentation from STA-SAFE.

ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris said the Canberra government is doing “everything [it] can to ensure pill testing goes ahead at Groovin the Moo”. “The ACT government is being proactive and working with stakeholders to address any questions or concerns so we can see this happen,” she adds, “and I hope we have a final outcome soon.”

Dr Groves stresses that although pill testing cannot eliminate the harms of drug use, and cannot be used as a stand-alone solution, it could be a vital part of wider harm reduction strategy. “We are calling for further collaboration between law enforcement and healthcare providers to ensure that they take appropriate action to reduce the harm caused by drugs,” he concludes. “It is important to focus on prevention, public awareness campaigns and education to shift cultural attitudes, so that use of party drugs is identified as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.”

Royal Blood, Public Service Broadcasting, Alex Lahey, Duke Dumont, Lady Leshurr, Portugal the Man, Sampa the Great and Claptone are among the performers at Groovin the Moo 2018, which kicks off in Wayville, South Australia, on 27 April and wraps up in Bunbury on 12 May.


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