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Pill Testing May Have Helped Avoid Melbourne Overdoses, Advocates Say

'Kids do dumb stuff, but it shouldn't be a death penalty.'

20/02/2017 2:27 PM AEDT | Updated 20/02/2017 3:22 PM AEDT
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The calls for pill testing are growing louder.

Advocates for pill testing at Australian music festivals have reissued their calls for a trial program to be approved this year, after more than 20 people were hospitalised following suspected GHB overdoses at a Melbourne event over the weekend.

The future of the Electric Parade festival is reportedly in doubt, after 21 people were admitted to hospital following Saturday's event. Authorities believe many of those who fell ill had taken GHB, a depressant which usually comes in liquid form.

Besides the weekend incidents, there have been a number of drug-related deaths at Australian festivals and parties in recent months, including one man at a Queensland festival over New Year's Eve, two men on a party bus to a festival in Sydney in October, and three deaths and 20 hospitalisations on Melbourne's Chapel Street in January.

Emergency physician and drug expert Dr David Caldicott is among a group calling for a trial pill testing program to be rolled out at a music festival this year, where festival-goers would be able to have their substances checked and be given a detailed analysis of what is actually contained in their pill. Overdoses or bad reactions can occur when someone is sold a pill that they believe to be a certain substance, but it turns out to be something quite different, or contain cutting agents such as bleach or other poisons.

"We're working furiously on a couple of events. We still remain very optimistic, we're very much in negotiations with two jurisdictions, which have cautiously supported it," he told The Huffington Post Australia.

A pill testing scheme, as envisioned by Caldicott's group, would include setting up a stall at a music festival where people could bring their substances for testing. While the festival-goer waits for the results of their pill -- which can be a near-instantaneous or very fast result, depending on the technology used -- the medical professionals manning the stall provide information about drugs, which can include how certain substances will react with alcohol or other drugs, and if there is a 'bad batch' of a certain drug at the festival which should be avoided at all costs. Once the result is returned, there would be an 'amnesty bin' for people to dispose of drugs they no longer wish to take, and further information is provided around the possible harms of that specific substance.

For example, Caldicott said GHB reacts badly with alcohol, and the two should not be mixed.

"The most important thing about having pill testing in this space is the context in which results are given. Experts would be advising about the hazards of GHB, added harm minimisation strategies. There is huge resources available," he said.

"The context of presentation is important. Nobody in our group ever approves of consumption, we give it context as far as health is concerned. To say we do otherwise is a complete misrepresentation and couldn't be further from the truth. I can advise people on the potential harms."

Caldicott declined to detail exactly which states his group was speaking with, but told HuffPost Australia that they were planning to hold a pill testing trial at a music festival by the middle of 2017 -- with or without approval from the relevant authorities.

"We're hopeful those jurisdictions will appreciate the overwhelming support from the scientific community [for pill testing]. But if it seems these jurisdictions wont be persuaded by the science, we'd probably go and do it anyway," he said bluntly.

"It's much preferable to do it in a negotiated way, to persuade our colleagues of the science. But if we pitch the best case to them, and they feel the current situation is preferable to a pilot of pill testing, we'll probably invoke some medical responsibility to take the initiative."

Caldicott said the trial would collect information on the drugs tested, and provide that data to "anyone who wants to look at it".

"We can't fathom the idea that it preferable to let the status quo to continue, than to try something new," he said.

There are other considerations around pill testing, such as how law enforcement would treat people lining up in front of a booth that tests drugs. It would require a certain level of discretion from police, otherwise officers could simply stand at the booth and wait to search and arrest anyone who lines up. Frank Hansen, a former sergeant in the NSW Police drug squad, told HuffPost Australia in December 2015 that -- in NSW at least -- a pill testing program could come in with little legal ramifications and require no new legislation, only needing a directive from police bosses to exercise discretion.

Dr Alex Wodak -- president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent's Hospital and another advocate of pill testing -- was asked the same question on Sky News on Monday.

Caldicott said pill testing could work in tandem with police, rather than in opposition, for the best results. He said such an approach is used in Europe, where pill testing schemes have operated for years.

"We're the second line of defence. Police try to stop the drugs from coming in, but when it's in the venue, what then? This is why law enforcement and health work really well in Europe," he said.

"How do I tell a parent who has lost a child or had child in intensive care [from a drug overdose] that we as a society haven't done everything possible to stop that? These things are working overseas."

"These drugs are illegal because they're medically dangerous, so medicine has the priority here. Kids do dumb stuff, but we have to find way to forgive this, because it shouldn't be a death penalty."



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