Are you yay or nay to pill testing services at major festivals? Well, here are the facts.

With thousands of young Australians heading to music festivals over NYE, it’s time to get informed about the good, the bad and the ugly of Australia’s pill testing debate (image source: Jack Toohey).

By Malvika Hemanth|

Whether you are in favour or against pill testing at Australian festivals, the fact is that over half of young Australians aged 18-29 have taken illicit substances into music festivals, according to Triple J’s 2018 ‘What’s Up in Your World’ survey.

And with NYE music festivals such as Falls Festival and Beyond the Valley nearly upon us, 83% of young Australians said they are willing to use pill testing services if they become available.

However, the government has yet to implement a nation-wide pill testing service at major festivals despite Coroner Grahame’s recommendations following six drug-related deaths over the summers of 2018/2019.

This year, Groovin the Moo was the second government-sanctioned pill testing trial in Australia run primarily by Pill Testing Australia.

An independent study of the trial conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) identified a mostly positive result; however, there were areas of concern.

Of the 234 people that used the service, most rated it ‘good or very good’ and would use the service again if it were available.

Pill Testing Australia was also able to identify seven substances that contained N-ethylpentylone, a potentially dangerous drug that can cause adverse side effects including insomnia, paranoia and cardiac arrest.

The study also revealed mixed results when it came to self-reported changes of an individual’s intention to take a drug after accessing testing services.

The ANU found that people were less likely to take a drug when the pill testing service found that their drug was not what they expected; yet, they were more likely to take the drug if it was what they expected.

Follow-up data did find that individuals who took the drug when it was identified to be what they expected claimed to use harm reduction knowledge to minimise their risks.

So, what does Pill Testing Australia use to identify what’s in the substances of festival goers?

A $45,000 infrared spectrometer.

“It’s able to identify the major components within a sample that we’re provided,” Mr Gino Vumbaca, President of Harm Reduction Australia which funds Pill Testing Australia said.

The pill testing process takes around 12-15 minutes, yet testing pills is just one part of the process.

“We engage with patrons when they come in, so they’re given a lot of information about drug use harms, and then they’re provided with information from the sample [that they have had tested] and the drugs they’re thinking about consuming,” Mr Vumbaca said.

“They can then talk to our chemist, our doctors and our qualified drug and alcohol counsellors and … decide if they still want to go ahead with taking the drug.

“For many, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to speak to someone who is non-judgemental, just talking about their issues and talking to them about the information they want.”

The accuracy of pill testing methods is another area of public scrutiny.

Currently, the accuracy of pill testing methods by Pill Testing Australia is around 70-80%. However, Pill Testing Australia, alongside the ANU, hope to increase that to 90-95%.

“We’re building our own library for local drugs that have been tested, but the problem is governments don’t allow us to do it enough to build up that expertise,” Mr Vumbaca said.

“They just treat [Pill Testing Australia] as if we’re promoting drug use and so refuse to listen to what we’re saying.”

NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, remains firm with her stance on harm reduction methods such as pill testing.

She believes that pill testing sends the “wrong message” to young people and they should instead “just say no [to drugs].”

Yet, evidence of pill testing schemes across Europe collected by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has found that the introduction of a drug testing service does not increase drug use. 

“[Pill testing] is not a panacea it’s not going to stop all drug-related harm at festivals, but it does reduce the likelihood of it happening,” Mr Vumbaca said.

When asked whether pill testing should be mandatory at all major festivals including NYE festivities, he said that it would be “a reasonable pathway to travel” as long as “we don’t put the viability of festivals at risk by doing it.”

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