MEEGAN Fitzharris has stuck her neck out in announcing an Australian first to test pills at a music festival. The political risk reflects her concern regarding harm to young people from pill popping.
There can be little doubt that the ACT Minister for Health will be bombarded with messages from those who will argue she should follow Nancy Reagan with a message of “just say no”. Her response has already been unequivocal: “The evidence is that by allowing this pill testing to take place at Spilt Milk we can help keep young people safe.” She points out that from music-festival pills in 2015 “several young people tragically lost their lives in Australia”.
The idea is not new. The Netherlands took this approach in the 1990s and there is now evidence of efficacy from NZ and Canada regarding pill-testing schemes. In practice, young people who are considering taking party drugs they believe to be “ecstasy” can know they are using methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) rather than a pill that is laced with other dangerous or more addictive substances.
Perhaps more importantly, the person who is using a drug such as MDMA will know the amount of the drug in the particular pill, thus lowering the risk of overdosing.
Fitzharris has looked at the evidence and applied a sensible solution. She pointed out results of a 2015 National Drug Policing Survey that found 65.3 per cent of respondents who regularly attend festivals used illicit drugs.
Who would not prefer to see young people not taking such a risk with party drugs? However, we would also prefer to see our children and grandchildren not take the risk of riding motor bikes, of drinking alcohol to excess, of sky-diving and of skiing at break-neck speeds. Growing up for a certain percentage of young people means taking risks. A harm minimisation approach, as taken by Meegan Fitzharris and her government, recognises risk taking and moves to mitigate to the greatest extent possible.
The recent National Drug Strategy (2017-2026) has been agreed by all Australian jurisdictions and supports a harm-minimisation strategy that has three pillars: harm reduction, demand reduction and supply reduction.
Pill testing falls into the first category. However, governments are not blind to the other two categories with demand reduction largely around health promotion and treatment while supply reduction largely concentrates on policing.
The most successful drug policies deploy all three pillars – although it is clear that Australia funds supply reduction much more heavily than the other two pillars. As a next step, governments can learn from Portugal about the success of moving large proportions of funding from policing to treatment.
The ACT Opposition continues to show how it has grown more and more socially conservative. Ironically, no-one would have been surprised if the same process was proposed by the Carnell or Humphries governments at the turn of the millennia. After all, Carnell and Humphries supported a trial to provide heroin to dependent users as a harm-reduction measure. The Canberra Liberals have changed. Shadow attorney-general Jeremy Hanson was concerned pill testing 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, warning the government: “If there is a serious event or death, it will be on this government’s hands”.
ACT Policing is less conservative with Chief Police Officer Justine Saunders saying she 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”.
Testing will be managed by the Safety Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) consortium, which is led by Harm Reduction Australia, Australian Drug Observatory, Noffs Foundation, DanceWize and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Saving lives and reducing harm are the key. No matter how much flack she takes, the Health Minister and her government can rest easy having taken evidence-based action to keep young people as safe and healthy as possible.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.