Festival drug testing a bitter pill for some

While many experts, including Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president, Dr Alex Wodak, have called on politicians to consider the success of pill testing at music festivals in Europe in the wake of five deaths in NSW and Victoria, expert testimony is available closer to home.

Canberra was the first Australian jurisdiction to trial voluntary pill testing at last year's Groovin' the Moo festival. The general consensus was it had been a success despite the low profile of the pilot program at the event.

About 130 people used the service and 85 individual drug samples were tested. Prospective drug users were advised on the perceived level of risk associated with their pills and, in a significant number of instances, chose not to take the substance after the testing.

The process, regardless of the outcome in any given case, created a pause in which a festival goer could stop and think about what they were about to do. It provided a context in which the risk of death, permanent disability or serious illness could be weighed against the dubious "benefit" of a short term high.

All of that stands in stark contrast to recent events in Victoria and NSW; states that have been steadfast in their opposition to any form of pill testing on the rather spurious grounds it amounts to condoning the use of illegal drugs.

Four people died at music festivals in NSW over the last four months and a young Victorian man died over the New Year break.

It is pleasing to see NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, may be reconsidering her stance.

"If there was a way in which we think we could ensure that lives were saved with pill testing we will consider it, but there has been no evidence provided to government on that," she said last week.

The issue of evidence, as Dr Wodak and others have been at some pains to point out, can easily be addressed by asking the relevant authorities to review the outcomes of pill testing trials in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain, as well as in the ACT.

This could be followed by a tightly controlled trial of pill-testing at public events involving young people in NSW. Such a trial could be facilitated by the STA-SAFE consortium, soon to be known as Pill Testing Australia, which ran the Canberra pilot in 2018.

STA-SAFE has told The Canberra Times it has already been approached by a number of festival promoters from around the country in the wake of the recent tragedies. It is unable to conduct tests outside the ACT until other jurisdictions get on board.

While drug testing will always be a bitter pill for conservative politicians to swallow, it is time for Ms Berejiklian and her colleagues to acknowledge what they are doing now isn't working.

If, as they claim, they are serious about preventing deaths then harm minimisation through voluntary pill testing is the way to go. It should be an easy decision to make.