09/08/2016 4:56 PM AEST | Updated 12/08/2016 12:15 PM AEST

It's Important To Understand Pill Testing Before We Condemn It

The NSW Government and Parliament has no reason to be fearful of a forum to debate and discuss policies that affect so many of its citizen's lives.

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Public policy is a complex and difficult beast to both understand and master, and drug policy is no different.

The number of people who use drugs in our society is much larger than many people realise. The latest national figures show that almost 3 million (or 15 percent) people used an illicit drug in the past 12 months and almost 8 million (or 42 percent) Australians have used an illicit drug at some time in their lives. Of course, this figure doesn't include alcohol, tobacco or the prescribed use of pharmaceuticals, just the drugs that are currently illegal to use. What this means is that any changes in drug policy have the ability to affect millions of people directly, and -- when you take into account those around people using drugs -- even more indirectly.

Drug use can be casual, regular, severe, intermittent, controlled, problematic, painful, enjoyable or something in between. We also know that every fatal overdose is tragic and that many are preventable.

According to Family Drug Support Australia, the overdose toll this year will be around 1,400 people -- an average of four people dying every day. To this appalling figure we have to add the grieving families and friends. We also know that many people are left impaired from the thousands of non-fatal overdoses that occur each year. Add to this the harm from the stigma faced by people who use drugs and the accepted knowledge that people who use drugs also figure very heavily in our criminal justice system, then the potential lifelong consequences of drug policy are clear.

Given the number of people affected and the complexity of the issues involved, it stands to reason that drug policy is an important area to understand before making decisions that could help or harm so many.

The NSW Harm Minimisation Summit, which took place in Parliament on Thursday, was established by a cross-party group of MPs eager to see informed debate and policy in this area. They, like many in the community, are fed up with the distortions and poorly informed policies that make up our current approach to drug use.

The Summit was overflowing with people from a range of backgrounds, experience and expertise, including Justice Michael Kirby, Bob Carr, John Brogden, Nick Cowdery, numerous respected medical, health and law enforcement professionals, and, just as importantly, families and people with lived experience of drug use. The Summit called on a range of important policy and program measures to be introduced into NSW including the decriminalisation of personal use of illicit drugs and a pill testing trial.

A letter, signed by all delegates at the Summit, called on Premier Mike Baird and the Opposition Leader Luke Foley to hold a NSW Drug Summit in the Parliament, similar to the historic 1999 Drug Summit.

The need for such a summit has become clearer in recent times as the NSW Government has now publicly ruled out both pill testing trials and operational changes to the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in NSW.

The recent public rejection of Injecting Centre submissions, which occurred before the proper assessment process of the submissions in the statutory review of the Act governing the Injecting Centre had effectively commenced, demonstrated an ill-fated approach to drug policy and programs.

The NSW Government and Parliament has no reason to be fearful of a forum to debate and discuss policies that affect so many of its citizen's lives. It is an opportunity to review the evidence, understand the impact of current laws and policies and develop effective approaches that make communities, families and people healthier and safer.