Harm minimisation advocates have vowed to carry out a "protest manoeuvre" by distributing "legal" drug testing kits at festivals
Thousands of free pill-testing kits will flood Sydney's music festivals this summer amid an ongoing row between the NSW government and health experts over the legalities of a professionally managed harm reduction trial.
With the summer festival calendar about to hit full swing and Premier Mike Baird holding firm on his government's threat to prosecute anyone associated with a pill-testing trial, Fairfax Media can reveal harm minimisation advocates have now vowed to carry out a "protest manoeuvre" involving "legal" do-it-yourself drug-testing kits.
The products enable people to test illegally purchased pills and identify the presence of a particular drug. But those behind the "Just One Life" campaign acknowledge the "basic" tests come with limitations and are unable to detect the presence of other potentially deadly cutting agents.
"This is definitely not our preferred option, it is our only available option," said Harm Reduction Australia president Gino Vumbaca, who previously ran the Australian National Council on Drugs.
"We are heading into festival season, we witnessed a number of deaths last year. The unfortunate reality is, tragedies will again occur this summer.
He added: "When it came to discussing the available options with government, we couldn't even get a foot in the door. We have since decided we cannot sit back idly and do nothing."
In February, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Dr Alex Wodak and emergency medical specialist Dr David Caldicott announced a privately funded drug-testing "trial" would commence in NSW with or without the government's blessing. Their vision involved laboratory-grade drug-testing machinery, doctors and expert analysts who can interact with partygoers and provide information and advice, prior to consumption.
The proposal received the backing of former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer and ex-NSW premier Bob Carr. However, not so supportive was the current NSW Police Minister Troy Grant who pledged to arrest anyone trying to access the service.
"I'm frustrated that we are forced down this road, largely as a consequence of real inaction by political leadership," said Dr Caldicott of the "toned down" plan. "Here is a government that allows a medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross to save lives, but blocks a medically supervised testing centre from doing the same at music festivals."
Thousands of youngsters flocked to the Harbourlife festival in Sydney on Saturday where two years ago, 19-year-old Georgina Bartter collapsed and then later died after consuming a fatal dose of MDMA.
As of 5pm Saturday more than sixty drug detections and "a few" arrests had been made at the event, according to Sydney City Duty Officer Scott Willis. 48 police officers, including casual clothed officers and police with sniffer dogs, were present at the festival.
Fairfax Media can confirm that four festival organisers came out "strongly in favour" of pill testing as a harm minimisation strategy at their events this summer. However, it was "emphasised" to them, by government and law enforcement officials, that should they allow such trials to operate on-site, it would be regarded as a "tacit admission" drug consumption was occurring under their watch.
Harm Reduction Australia, Ted Noffs Foundation, the Australian Drug Observatory, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia and the Victoria-based DanceWize have since combined to launch the "Just One Life" campaign. "Nobody is endorsing drug use. Nobody is trying to encourage it. What we are trying to to ensure is that young people don't die ... that is the basis for Just One life," said Dr Caldicott.
The free testing kits, on hand at festivals this summer, will confirm whether or not pills contain a particular drug like ecstasy (MDMA).
"If you were to test a product that demonstrated no MDMA in it, our strongest advice would be not to take it," said Dr Caldicott.
However, Dr Caldicott also stressed that, even if the test does identify MDMA, it does not mean the pill is safe.
"These kits give no information about purity and one of the biggest problems we have in this summer's market is very high dose MDMA.
"It is disappointing," he added. "There is a far better way we could do this. But they [the government] have ignored the evidence and expertise available to them."
In July, a music festival in Cambridgeshire, England, became the first event in the UK to offer people an opportunity to have their illegal drugs tested, following an agreement reached between the local police and council, aiming to promote safer drug use.
More than 80 substances were discovered in circulation over the weekend, including dangerously high dose ecstasy tablets and numerous other misrepresented products, including anti-malaria tablets traded as ketamine and ammonium sulphate sold as MDMA.
Ten years ago the Australian Medical Association hosted a Party Drug Summit at which it agreed to support "targeted, ethically approved, medically supervised research" surrounding the role of pill testing.
A spokesman confirmed last week its position remained "unchanged", adding: "Illicit drug use and alcohol misuse is a complex matter and there is no one solution to this."
Mr Grant declined to comment.
The original proposal for NSW summer festivals
- Privately funded, professionally run clinical pill-testing trial at music festivals.
- Sophisticated, state-of-the-art laboratory equipment providing precise breakdowns of chemical ingredients contained in a particular product.
- Staffed by doctors, counsellors and peer interviewers who can provide better information and warnings to festivalgoers so they can make informed choices.
- While their respective governments have provided no legal endorsement, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, France – and now England – are among the European countries operating such initiatives.
- Blocked by NSW government.
The "Band-Aid" alternative:
- Harm reduction campaigners to make drug-testing kits available at NSW festivals.
- The do-it-yourself kits are the same as those used by law enforcement agencies and identify the presence, or absence, of a particular drug such as ecstasy.
- It cannot confirm dose levels of a particular drug.
- Unable to provide information on other potentially dangerous cutting agents contained in a pill.
- The kit itself is not illegal to possess.
By Eamonn Duff - The Sydney Morning Herald/Nov. 20 2016
Photo: Viki Yemettas, Getty images
Note: Layout is not perfect, l am having issues with wrapping the text around the image
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Thousands of free pill-testing kits to flood Sydney's summer music festivals