Australia’s first fixed pill testing site will be up and running within weeks, and the organizers hope it could be the start of a national program.
A pill testing trial at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in 2019 potentially saved seven lives after the program detected “toxic” chemicals mixed into drugs.
An earlier coronial inquest into festival deaths recommended pill testing and other harm reduction measures.
The six-month fixed site pilot in Canberra will be an Australian first and one of only a handful worldwide. Harm Reduction Australia will run it with the Australian National University and local health service provider Directions.
The CBD site, funded by ACT Health, will open two nights a week from 19 July.
HRA president Gino Vumbaca pointed to the success of syringe programs, which were controversial when first implemented but are now widely accepted and have saved thousands of lives by preventing overdoses and HIV infections.
Pill testing is likely to become similarly normalized, he said, after this initial trial.
“We’ll be able to offer [the fixed site] as an ongoing service, then depending on demand, we might increase the number of nights we’re available,” he said.
“What we want to see is other governments seriously looking at this.
“We hear politicians say there’s no evidence. There are truckloads of evidence.”
A review of the Groovin the Moo trial found it provided good health information to people planning to use illicit drugs. It found that people’s behaviors and attitudes changed in “a way … likely to reduce harm” and detected a highly dangerous chemical in circulation.
Pill Testing Australia’s Dr. David Caldicott called it a “real watershed” where a jurisdiction found the “political courage to … follow the advice and the evidence”. Caldicott is a long-term advocate for pill testing and an emergency consultant at Canberra’s Calvary hospital, and HRA convenes PTA.
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Caldicott said the site would also be available for injecting drug users. It’s a “quid pro quo”, he said. His team will be able to gather information about drug use patterns, and in return, “we’ll keep them safe”, he said.
“There’s stuff going on out there that we need to get our fingers all over … some of that will be identified by chatting with people who inject drugs and some by people who go to music festivals.
“With a fixed site, we can chat to people who go to music festivals all year round and, for the first time, people who inject drugs.”
Caldicott said whether or not the program gets rolled out nationally was down to political will.
“One of the interesting things about this is it represents a jurisdiction accepting what is effectively universal advice and expertise and making policy out of it,” he said.
“[Whether other states pick it up] depends on the political appetite of other jurisdictions to protect their citizenry similarly.
“The expertise has always said this is what we should be doing, but the real watershed is in the political courage to allow oneself to follow the advice and the evidence. It’s our political counterparts who deserve the credit.”
He said that a post-election “honeymoon” period in other states could be the perfect time to take the political risk.
Vumbaca said the festival pill testing had been derailed by Covid and insurers who balked at the idea. He said the fixed site would help more people than those buying festival tickets.
“Just because there were no festivals [during the pandemic], it doesn’t mean people stopped using MDMA [ecstasy] and party drugs,” he said.
“While the festival pill testing is good because there are people who might use drugs opportunistically, it’s only limited access [by people with tickets]; it’s not equitable.”
Earlier this month, the ACT government decriminalized small amounts of illicit drugs as part of a suite of harm reduction policies, including the pill testing pilot.
A 2020 survey found two-thirds of Australians favor festival pill testing.
“This is a proven method,” Vumbaca said.
“Politicians don’t get how widespread the support is.”