A report on the success of a pill-testing trial conducted in April has declared the pilot an "overwhelming success", while also shining light on the realities of how Australians take drugs.
The STA-Safe consortium published its report on Wednesday, outlining how it had planned, organised, and carried out the trial, held during the Canberra leg of the Groovin the Moo music festival.
During the festival, 125 people visited the pill-testing tent. The tent wasn't signposted, or heavily advertised before the festival began, which was an issue, as the report found a quarter of the people who actually used the pill testing on offer wanted signage about it.
The majority of people in the trial said they got their drugs from friends (55%) or a dealer (28%), but 7% said they had found them. Those who had found the drugs had all used before.
Most participants in the trial assumed they had MDMA, but 38 of the 70 samples tested didn't contain the drug as a major ingredient.
With an amnesty bin filled with bleach on site for participants to use if they wanted to throw away their drugs, the report found an intended "discreet disposal" model –which would have seen the bin placed in a quieter location – wasn't possible as the tent was too small.
Following the trial, 42% of participants said their drug consumption would change. The report said the "front-of-house" pill-testing model used in Canberra was a possible and practical method, offering peer-based interventions, counselling, and referrals "with a pragmatic focus on both demand and supply reduction".
"The development of a uniquely Australian pill testing service model that involves peers, health professionals and law enforcement officials working together to reduce harm amongst drug users needs to be prioritised and supported by all Australian governments," the report stated.
When asked about pill testing on Wednesday, minister for communications and the arts Mitch Fifield said "the best way to not be harmed by drugs is to not take them".
"I would urge people who attend arts events to say 'no' when someone offers them illicit substances," he said.
Matt Noffs of the Noffs Foundation told BuzzFeed News the "just say no" approach had been tried for "decades" without success.
"Our organisation has helped to create some of the most incredible programs and movements that have helped hundreds of thousands of people around Australia," said Noffs.
"From the Freedom Rides to Lifeline, the country’s first drug referral centre, and the country’s first adolescent treatment centres. We’ve done all of those things. In fact, we even invented Happy Harold the giraffe and Life Education Centre and now we’ve done pill testing. But here’s the difference between a giraffe telling a kid to say no to drugs and pill testing – one is based on evidence and one failed decades ago."
Noffs said it was time for pragmatism: "We're not saying 'say yes to drugs'. From both our own evaluation and our global evidence — we know it works.
"At the festival a few months back we were able to engage with 128 people who were going to use drugs no matter what the police or a politician or a giraffe says about drugs. We know how to reduce harm. You can hear it from a doctor, not a giraffe."
The ACT Liberal member for Murrumbidgee, Jeremy Hanson, himself an ardent opponent to pill testing, wrote an op-ed where he decried pill testing as a method that would "most likely do more harm than good" and asked for further trials to not be supported.
Hanson was rebutted by ACT chief health officer Dr Paul Kelly, and ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris, who contributed statements to the report.
Fitzharris called the trial a success and said other jurisdictions were keenly waiting to see the results of evaluation.
Meanwhile, Kelly said the lessons learned in the trial would be "really valuable" for the ACT and other jurisdictions.
"If we continue to do what we have been doing for the past 20 or 30 years in relation to drug policy, we will continue to get the issues that we face at festivals and other places every weekend, and day-in, day-out in Australia of kids putting themselves in harm," he said.
The pill-testing trial cost $34,000, including payments made to the festival for security and paramedics. Another attempt at harm minimisation at festivals, police sniffer dogs, cost more than $700,000 a year – on top of the $9.5 million required annually to maintain the dog units.
Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Brad Esposito at email@example.com.
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