Pill testing gets green light for Canberra festival Spilt Milk

NEWS: Dr david Caldicott outside Calvary Hospital, Bruce. .   12th June. 2104. Photo by Melissa Adams of The Canberra Times.
NEWS: Dr david Caldicott outside Calvary Hospital, Bruce. . 12th June. 2104. Photo by Melissa Adams of The Canberra Times.

A Canberra music festival will become the first in Australia to provide pill testing in a move health advocates say will save lives.

ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris on Friday revealed the government had given permission for a trial program testing illicit drugs at the November 25 Spilt Milk festival "to keep people safe".

The testing will be conducted and funded by a Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) consortium and offered for free to festival goers.

The move comes after a similar proposal for Groovin The Moo was denied earlier this year.

"We need to find the right balance between letting young people know it's illegal to take drugs, they can be very harmful, but also being realistic because we've seen deaths at festivals, five in 2015 alone, so if that helps to keep people safe, it's worth doing," Ms Fitzharris said.

The program is supported and developed in consultation with ACT Policing, but the opposition claims the move will enable people to "peddle drugs to our kids".

Festival goers will be able to attend a medical tent at Spilt Milk and provide a sample of a drug to be tested using laboratory grade equipment for free.

Anything from a small scraping to the entire pill can be tested - the greater the sample the more accurate the reading will be.

It will take as little as a few minutes for the results to be processed and a reading will be provided detailing any potential "red flags" in the drugs.

After receiving the results, the person will have the option of keeping the pill or discarding it in an amnesty bin containing bleach.

Regardless of the outcome of the test, festival goers will be warned about the health risks of illegal drugs by trained drug counsellors.

Dr David Caldicott, a Canberra-based emergency medicine specialist and advocate for Harm Reduction Australia, said the move would stop people taking drugs and prevent deaths.

He said his experience treating a 21-year-old who died from a drug overdose in 2001 led to his passion for drug reform.

Dr Caldicott said research from overseas programs showed up to 60-per-cent of people who had their pills tested went on to throw them away.

"People who don't read books say this will lead to more drug use and help dealers," he said

"Drug testing isn't occurring as an alternative to policing, it's occurring in conjunction with it."

Dr Caldicott refuted claims the testing was unable to detect some substances like synthetic drugs, saying the opposition had refused to sit down with stakeholders and discuss the program.

"The entirety of the research community is behind this," he said.

"People who are most opposed are not so because they have a great deal of scientific knowledge, but largely because of ideological reasons."

Shadow Attorney-General Jeremy Hanson said the program undermined police and sent a message to drug dealers they could peddle drugs.

"The pill testing that can be done at festivals does not mean the pills those people are going to take are going to be safe," he said.

"If there is a serious event or death after someone has taken a pill that has been tested it will be on this government's hands."

But Chief Police Officer Justine Saunders said ACT policing supported the program and had been actively engaged with ACT Government and stakeholders.

"Unfortunately we have seen people die at music festivals across Australia from taking illicit drugs. This is why ACT Policing is supportive of working with the ACT Government and stakeholders on harm minimisation initiatives such as this one that has the potential to protect and save lives," she said.

"ACT Policing will be patrolling the festival to ensure patrons enjoy the event in a safe environment.

"Police will not enter the health facility that contains the pill testing station unless requested to do so by festival organisers, security staff or emergency services or in response to an emergency situation."

Kick's Entertainment directors Jeff Drake and Ryan Sabet applauded the ACT government for allowing the testing to take place.

"Our hope is that a successful trial of this measure at Spilt Milk will help drive change and see harm minimisation embraced as a standard safety measure in Australia," they said in a statement.

Pill testing does not breach any ACT laws and Ms Fitzharris said those analysing the drugs will take precautions not to inadvertently break them.

The trial will be closely monitored, with STA-Safe to report back on the number of people who used the service, how many people discarded their drugs and the chemical content of each sample.

The ACT Greens - who last week tabled a 1000-signature petition in the Legislative Assembly calling on the government to allow pill testing at the festival - said it was relieved the testing would be available.

This story Pill testing gets green light for Canberra festival Spilt Milk first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.