The push to legalize drug checking at music festivals in Australia is gathering momentum, with a new study reporting nearly 90 percent of participants said they would use such a service, if it were available, before taking illicit drugs.
Drug checking at music festivals has long been called for by public health advocates and drug reform campaigners. The summer music festival and party season in Australia often sadly sees many drug overdoses and deaths, with many of these reactions ascribed to people ingesting a substance that was sold as something else, or because the drug was laced with more toxic ingredients, such as detergent or rat poison.
During the 2016-2017 festival season, 21 people were hospitalized after bad reactions to drugs taken at a festival. One man died at a Queensland festival over New Year’s Eve, two men died on a party bus to a festival in Sydney, and three people died and 20 were hospitalized after a bad batch of ecstasy was sold on Melbourne’s Chapel Street.
Drug checking, also known as pill testing, has been in place at parties and music festivals throughout Europe for years. It has shown success in preventing deaths and injuries in the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal and other countries. With the service, someone who wants to take a drug can come to a booth where the pill or powder can be checked scientifically to produce a detailed analysis of its ingredients. Festival-goers can then make an informed decision about what they put in their body.
Despite vigorous efforts from campaigners, health experts and the federal Greens party, pill testing is still not permitted in Australia. Recent studies at Australian universities have indicated that young people want the services to be available and would heed warnings.
In a study of 642 people from Western Sydney University, conducted at a major Australian music festival in 2016 and published in the Harm Reduction Journal, more than 54 percent of respondents said they would be highly likely to use a free drug testing service at a festival. Another 33 percent said they would be somewhat likely to use it, making a total of 87 percent saying it would be useful. Participants also said the results of a test would influence their decision to take that drug, with 65 percent saying they would not take any substance found to contain methamphetamine, and 57 percent saying they would not take a substance containing the anesthetic ketamine.
“The idea is not to facilitate or condone drug use ― but to help people make better informed decisions, and to provide an opportunity for harm reduction information and health promotion messages to be given directly to young people,” said Dr Jennifer Johnston, research fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health North Coast, which was involved in the study.
A recent University of New South Wales study involving 850 young people found that 94 percent said they would use a drug checking service at clubs or festivals,
In 2015, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported 27 percent of Australians ages 20 to 29 had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months. Australians use MDMA (ecstasy) at a slightly higher rate than the global average, according to the 2017 Global Drug Survey, and almost three-quarters of Australian MDMA users ingest the drug in pill form, the highest amount in the world. The 2014 United Nations World Drug Report found Australians had the world’s highest rate of ecstasy consumption. Despite this, a study of drug reports by American drug addiction information service Project Know found ecstasy available in Australia is among the most dangerous in the world.
Dr. David Caldicott, an emergency physician and drug expert, is one of those leading the charge for pill testing in Australia. His team is seeking permission for a trial at an Australian music festival in coming months. A planned trial at a Canberra festival last year was canceled at the last minute.
Caldicott, who has been pushing for such a program for over a decade, including a trial at a South Australian festival in 2005, wants to bring in “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 tests take 20 to 40 minutes for an accurate analysis.
“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 told HuffPost in 2015.