The majority of Australian voters support pill-testing at musical festivals, according to a new study. It also reveals that those who voted conservatively in the last federal election are more likely to hold negative attitudes about pill-testing.
A study by the Australian National University, published in the Drug and Alcohol Review today, has revealed 63.4 percent of Australian voters support pill testing at music festivals.
Those most likely to support pill-testing are young Australians and non-churchgoers, according to the study. While those who voted for one of the two main conservative parties are less likely to support pill testing.
The study shows people who had liberal views concerning euthanasia, same-sex marriage, or cannabis drug reform are also more likely to be supportive of pill-testing.
The data was drawn from the 2019 Australian Election Survey, a large nationally-weighted representative survey conducted after the federal election.
One of the lead researchers of the study, Professor Toni Makkai, says the results suggest a high degree of political polarisation around pill-testing.
“It's about the partisan nature of it in the sense that if you think about a political party, it, of course, is going to progress policies that [their] base of supporters are in favour of,” she said.
The study comes as the ACT Government is considering conducting a static pill testing facility in Garema Place in Canberra’s centre, with advice to be handed to the government early next month.
The Greens has advocated heavily for this program and in August, the party secured a commitment from ACT Labor to explore a pill-testing site in the city.
“The reality is - people don’t just take pills at music festivals. A routine pill-testing site will continue to build on the success of previous pill testing trials at music festivals here in the ACT, and help keep more young lives safe,” ACT Greens Leader Shane Rattenbury said in August.
In 2018, the ACT Government conducted the first-ever and only government-supported pilot pill testing program at Canberra’s ‘Groovin the Moo’ festival.
At the festival, a significant proportion of tested drugs contained substitutes, such as filler or cutting agents, caffeine and foodstuff. The lethal substance N-ethyl pentylone - which has been linked to multiple overdoses overseas at music festivals - was also detected in seven of 171 substances tested.
Ms Makkai says research around pill-testing shows that when people are told what’s in their drugs, they are more likely to make an informed choice.
“At the last pill-testing trial in the ACT, everyone who was told the drugs contained a very dangerous drug, they threw those away and didn’t consume them,” Ms Makkai said.
“[Conversely], we know that when we have more policing, what happens is that then the kids take more drugs, they rush and take all of them before they go into the event,” she said.
Ms Makkai says pill-testing also presents an opportunity to provide counselling and information to drug-users.
“You’re not just sending them off, they're actually saying, ‘here's some information, but let's talk about this. Let us explain to you what's going on here and potentially have a wider conversation about drug and alcohol consumption’,” she told The Feed.
Outside the nation’s capital, all Australian states and jurisdictions have been slow to enact harm minimisation policies around pill-testing.
Last November, there was an inquiry into six deaths at music festivals in NSW between 2018 and 2019. The coroner made a wide range of recommendations, which included the introduction of a pilot pill testing program at music festivals.
However, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian rejected the report’s recommendations, arguing “pill testing could, unfortunately, give people a false sense of security … pill testing doesn’t deal with the overdoses.”
The NSW Government instead introduced other recommendations, including, ‘amnesty bins’ for drugs and more rigorous licensing of music festivals.
While in several European countries like Austria, Switzerland and The Netherlands, pill-testing has been implemented at festivals for decades. Ms Makkai says Australia should follow suit.
“What they’ve found is that with MDMA, it’s often got a whole lot of impurities in it which can be dangerous. What’s happened in Europe is by pill-testing, dealers are held to account by their buyers and there’s been an improvement in the quality of the drugs,” she said.
“That’s a good outcome because at least the pills are not actually diluted with terrible products that they cut these drugs with to make them go further and make money.”
Ms Makkai says while needle and syringe exchange programs were controversial when they were first introduced, they’ve had a positive impact. She believes the same will occur with pill-testing.
“As public opinion continues to support pill-testing, there's more pressure on the government to do something.”
“Pill-testing is a harm reduction strategy and there's been opposition to that. But it's not clear to me, like what is a successful alternative strategy? I don’t’ see it.”
The Feed has contacted ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith for comment.