The debate around 'drug checking' at music festivals

Drug researchers and harm minimisation activists are calling for pill testing to be introduced to music festivals, but others think it would encourage people to take drugs.

Drug safety advocates are lobbying hard for pill testing services to be put in place at Australia music festivals.

They say pill testing will prevent drug deaths like those seen at the Stereosonic festivals in Sydney and Adelaide recently.

But they have a long fight ahead with governments and police refusing to give up on the current no tolerance approach.

Australian Drug Foundation national policy manager Geoff Munro told SBS News it was time for Australia to have a pill testing trial to see if it would lead to lower numbers of overdoses.

“We have to recognise there is a culture of drug taking at music festivals and this would target the people who are determined to take the drugs,” he said.

“We think it’s time to trial that sort of approach [pill testing] in Australia.”

The founder of drug harm minimisation group Unharmed, Will Tregoning, told SBS News Australia was “one of the highest per capita users of ecstasy in the world”.

He said the zero tolerance approach had not deterred people from taking drugs.

Drug testing was already in place across Europe, the US and the UK and had been shown to be really effective, Mr Tregoning said.

“It’s not just a drug checking service, it’s also a place where people can dispose of drugs if they find they’re more harmful than what they were wanting to purchase, and that actually does happen,” he said.

“What that means is drug checking services are effectively discouraging some of the most harmful drug taking, especially taking some of these really unknown psychoactive substances.”

Tests just 'best guesses'

However forensic toxicologist and Safework Laboratories marketing director Andrew Leibie said the tests were little better than “best guesses” and were unable to detect contaminants or toxic compounds.

“Proper analysis of pills requires highly sophisticated laboratory equipment and can take many hours or days of work by trained technicians," he said on Monday.

"On-site pill testing is impractical and unlikely to have any meaningful impact or prevent the kinds of tragic deaths we have seen in recent weeks."

Police forces, including South Australian and NSW police, have refused to support pill testing or drug checking at festivals.

“We should be focused upon reducing demand and educating people as to the dangers of drugs, not incentivising the manufacture, supply and use of these dangerous substances,” drug squad commander Tony Cooke told The Australian.

Rainbow Serpent festival organiser Tim Harvey said while current laws effectively blocked the festival introducing the measures, there was evidence from overseas that pill testing was saving lives.

He said the measures could help to change people's drug-taking behaviour.

"We'd love to see people not take unnecessary risk," Mr Harvey said.

"However recreational drug use has been a reality for thousands of years.

"There's guidelines from overseas that exist to implement drug testing structures and practices at festivals."

Mr Tregoning said the services could also inform people who were already taking drugs how to stay as safe as possible and how to avoid taking dangerous cocktails of substances.

Mr Munro told SBS News pill testing would require the support of the police to proceed and he rejected suggestions the tests would be expensive and useless.

“I don’t think we should be putting the calculator on to this,” he said.

“We are talking about proactive measures to save young people’s lives. There is no guarantee of safety because people can have adverse reactions to the drug.”

Ongoing campaign for testing

Emergency medicine physician David Caldicott has long campaigned for pill testing to be allowed in Australia.

He said pill testing could discover contaminants in pills and new substances, but it also meant the service operators had a chance to discuss drug consumption with festival goers.

“It has been shown quite clearly that this is the only intervention we know of that actually chance young consumers’ behaviour at the point of consumption,” Dr Caldicott said.

“Many of the people who are passing comments on what might or might not happen at these venues are people who have never attended these festivals ever.

“What you see at these festivals in Europe is people waiting very patiently to test their pills. As a doctor I applaud them. I actually don’t think having a collection of people hurt serves as a disincentive.”

University of NSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre research fellow Monica Barratt said there were many different models of drug checking or pill testing that could be used.

“The model we use is going to have an effect on how effective it is,” Dr Barratt told SBS News.

“You could potentially have multiple models running in different states, and that sort of research would be really helpful.”

- with AAP