Pill Testing, Drug Sniffer Dog Removal Motion Passes Senate

Advocates say "civil disobedience shouldn't be ruled out" as they push for regime to be legalised.

03/09/2016 5:05 PM AEST | Updated 03/09/2016 5:06 PM AEST
Fairfax Media
There are growing calls to dump the sniffer dog program and institute pill testing instead

Calls for pill testing to be legalised in Australia and used at music festivals are growing, as the federal Senate passed a Greens motion calling for the regime to be adopted to save young lives.

Pill testing is a system used in various forms in parts of Europe to detect the presence of harmful chemicals and cutting agents in illicit drugs. It can be as simple as a litmus test indicating certain substances -- for instance, ecstasy, MDMA, methamphetamine, heroin or poisonous cutting agents -- up to sophisticated, laboratory-grade equipment that gives precise breakdowns 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.

A growing number of medical professionals, drug experts and harm minimisation voices have been calling for the traditional "just say no" approach to drugs to be scrapped, in the wake of a string of tragic deaths and overdoses at Australian music festivals in recent years, and harm minimisation strategies -- such as pill testing -- to be adopted instead.

On Wednesday, the federal Senate passed a motion supporting pill testing, as well as calling for the drug detection dog program, which has been blamed by pill testing advocates as a contributing factor in some of the drug deaths, to be scrapped.

The Greens-backed Senate motion called on federal parliament to work "with state and territory governments to cease the use of drug sniffer dogs at festivals and urgently introduce trials of pill testing for the upcoming festivals season." Also included in the motion were calls for expanding needle exchange programs and safe injecting rooms.

"Needle and syringe programs, supervised injecting rooms, pill testing –- these are all evidence-based harm reduction measures that the government should resource," said Greens leader and former drug and alcohol clinician, Richard Di Natale.

"I'm pleased the Senate has agreed that the Federal Government should act. Now it's time for Liberal and Labor governments to back these measures in every state and territory."

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Police frisk a man for drugs at Melbourne's Stereosonic festival

However, pill testing remains outlawed in Australia. As we explained in December, those experts who would test the drugs may open themselves up to police prosecution, as they would technically be in possession of the illegal substances when testing them. Other arguments include police simply searching festival-goers in line for drug testing and finding illicit substances in their possession.

Will Tregoning, from harm reduction group Unharm, is among the strongest voices calling for pill testing to be legalised in Australia. He told The Huffington Post Australia he was pleased and surprised the motion had passed the Senate.

"There's a growing support for pill testing, we're seeing it consistently advocated. It's not going away, the campaign is growing stronger," he said.

"In the horrible event, which we hope doesn't happen but probably will, of someone dying at an event this season, the onus will be on government to explain why they're committed to failure when successful alternatives are sitting there waiting to be implemented."

Tregoning hinted to Triple J's Hack program this week that pill testing advocates may throw caution to the wind and begin unofficially testing pills at music festivals this summer, most likely in the ACT where he says police are more receptive to the idea than some other states. When pressed on this idea by HuffPost Australia, he again did not rule it out.

Handout . / Reuters
Harm minimisation experts want to test pills to tell festival-goers what's in their drugs

"Civil disobedience shouldn't be ruled out. That's definitely an option, but our objective is to have [pill testing] rolled out as a very mainstream service across the country, so the question is what is the most effective way to get to that point, not just what can we do in the short term," he said.

"Plan A is to work with the governments with the most receptive and most constructive attitude to trialling this service."

Tregoning is also calling for the drug sniffer dog program to be cancelled. Teams of sniffer dogs with their handlers are a common sight outside music festivals, with dogs sniffing through crowds and checking patrons as they walk in and through the festival. Tregoning claimed the dogs create more problems than they solve, and may even contribute to the health risks.

"They find very few of the people with drugs, but having the dogs promotes fear. They're trying to make people afraid of being caught. Some people take all their drugs on the way in, or in the line, when they see the dogs. As important as introducing pill testing is removing these intimidating police operations at events, their effects are comprehensively harmful," he said.

"It's likely we'll see more deaths this season. There were at least six last season, a consistent pattern of deaths at music fests in NSW and some very clearly linked to drug dog detection operations."

Getty Images
Police officers and drug detection dogs walk amongst festival goers at Splendour in the Grass

Tregoning cites the case of James Munro, a 23-year-old Sydney man who died after an overdose at the Defqon festival in 2013. Munro's father claimed his son consumed several ecstasy pills at once after being spooked by drug dogs at the festival.

"There was a police presence at the gates and a concern he would be detected," James' father, Stephen, said.

Tregoning said the costs of setting up a pill testing program could be paid for with the savings from scrapping the drug dog system. He said he hoped governments would relent and allow at least a trial of the pill testing regime.

"What is lacking is the political will. The work involved to build the capability of the service is very well advanced, the main roadblock is political willingness to allow a trial to go ahead," he said.

"These are services that have been operating internationally for coming up to 20 years now. It's not a blank space, we have clear international models to draw on."

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