Music Festivals And Drugs: How Would Pill Testing Work?

30/12/2015 5:29 PM AEDT | Updated January 4, 2016 09:36
SA Police

The calls for pill testing at Australian music festivals are growing louder, with drug advocates, medical experts and former drug squad police saying there is little but political will standing in the way of introducing such a system.

Pill testing, in place in various forms in certain parts of Europe, can be as simple as a litmus test indicating the presence of certain substances -- for instance, ecstasy, MDMA, methamphetamine, heroin or poisonous cutting agents -- up to sophisticated, laboratory-grade equipment that gives precise rundowns of the chemical ingredients in a certain substance. Pill testing regimes put forward by Australian advocates would not tell a potential drug user that a substance is "safe" or "unsafe" -- they would give the user more information on that substance, for the user to then make an informed decision.

Emergency physician and drug expert Dr David Caldicott is leading the charge. He wants permission to conduct a pill testing trial at an Australian music festival this season, telling The Huffington Post Australia of his frustrations such a program is not already in place.

"This is not novel or scary or dangerous. The only people portraying it as such are fringe members of the prohibition movement and politicians terrified of engaging with anything on illicit drugs," he said.

"This is so mainstream in Europe now, the European Union has had their peak drug body produce best practice guidelines to do pill testing. Dozens of countries in Europe do this already. As with marriage equality or climate change, we are leading the way in being backwards on this. I'm flabbergasted and my overseas colleagues are scratching their heads."

HOW IT WORKS

Caldicott, who has been pushing for such a scheme for over a decade including running a trial at a South Australian festival in 2005, wants to bring in laboratory-grade equipment, with " the latest equipment, forensic analysts, supervised by doctors." He says he would set up shop in a visible part of the venue, asking potential drug users to bring their substance -- pill, powder or otherwise -- in for a test. The test takes between 20 and 40 minutes, returning an accurate scientific analysis of the substance.

police

Police assist an inebriated punter at Melbourne's Stereosonic

While that delay might seem a disincentive for festival-goers to use the service, Caldicott said the wait is actually equally as important as the test itself, giving drug experts the chance to talk to the drug user about their choices.

"We bring you into the tent, a researcher talks to you about your pills and use, gives you some up-to-date info on the newer drugs out there and how to stay safe," he said.

"We tell them the proportions of what's in the pill -- caffeine and cocaine, or if it's poison or bleach or other cutting agents. It's a balancing act between taking long enough to be useful and being fast enough they don't lose interest."

"[Users] want to know what's in their pills. The transaction and exchange is a moment of their time to talk about their choices."

"The kids see it as a game to elude the cops. If I can tell them that this stuff could hurt your kidneys for the rest of your life, who is more persuasive? The cops, or me?"

Will Tregoning, Director of Unharm, said the waiting period meant experts could give users information about drugs -- such as a dangerous substance or pill known to be circulating inside the festival grounds -- that could save a life.

"It's a way of providing a healthy intervention where people are taking drugs. With multi-day festivals, with people camping there, a key part of the service is broadcasting to other patrons about what has been found at the festival, if some dangerous substances are circulating in that micro-market," he told HuffPost Australia.

Many websites exist where drug users post feedback, reviews and photos of their pills, warning against bad pills or advising they did not have bad reactions to others. Tregoning said drug users are already purchasing simple litmus test-style kits on the internet to check their drugs before taking them, but said the limited feedback from such a test was not enough.

"You can purchase a test kit over the internet, they're not illegal, but it's essentially 19th century technology. It has quite significant limitations around operator error, misinterpreting the colour, using bad lighting, contaminating the substance -- but more crucially it doesn't give you precise info on the strength or quantity of a substance," he said.

DOES IT WORK?

Caldicott said research in Australia and overseas showed that pill testing does change behaviour of potential drug users, encouraging users to make safer choices.

"When a punter is told their pill contained something other than they thought, two-thirds of them do something other than take that pill. This is occurring at the point they are about to consume the pill," he said.

Part of many proposed pill testing regimes is an "amnesty bin" where punters can dispose of bad pills.

Caldicott said information about bad drugs would "spread virally," with alerts about very harmful drugs sent out to festival-goers by SMS and posted on big screens around the venue. Police have broadcasted similar warnings in the past, advising against red Superman pills in Queensland in February and -- after the death of Stefan Woodward at the Adelaide Stereosonic festival -- warning of orange pills with dollar signs which they said "may be related" to Woodward's death.

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A photo of the pills SA Police warned against

WHAT ARE THE LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS?

Opponents of pill testing have claimed the medical staff testing substances could open themselves up to drug possession charges, as well as citing duty of care risks over giving advice on pills that lead to a death or serious injury. Other arguments include police simply searching festival-goers in line for drug testing and finding illicit substances in their possession.

Frank Hansen, a former sergeant in the NSW Police drug squad, told HuffPost Australia that -- in NSW at least -- a pill testing program could come in with little legal ramifications and require no new legislation, only needing a modicum of discretion from police. He would know; Hansen was on the force when NSW introduced its needle exchange program.

"[Pill testing] can be accommodated but it's down to discretion. We currently have cannabis cautioning, discretion around the needle and syringe program. When they brought that in, we were asking police to accommodate a public health program and provide some latitude for people in possession of a syringe or going to or from a needle exchange program," he said.

"In 1985 around the needle program, the commissioner said to us “this is the policy on this program.” It gave police very clear directions and parameters of that discretion."

Hansen said issues around drug charges for pill testers, as well as allowing potential drug users to line up and have their pills checked without worrying about being targeted by police as they waited, could be overcome with directives from police management; but said that, like the supervised injecting room in King's Cross, a pill testing program would be better supported by specific legislation mandating its legality.

"Once you’ve got those things in place, that's what police are there to do -- to protect life and people. Part of that process might be a better mechanism [of testing]," he said.

"They would probably need to bring some law in for the testers, there is some public liability stuff there."

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