Supporters march for pill testing in Sydney. Picture: AAP
Supporters march for pill testing in Sydney. Picture: AAP

Pill testing will save lives. It must start now

Daylight saving is here, the wisteria's out. The hint of summer balminess is in the air. And that means it's time to talk about festivals, and pill testing once again.

Yes, it's a conversation that comes around as often as a tough-talking inquiry into the banks. That's because Australia is no nearer to resolving the issue of what to do about young people scarfing drugs and ending up in hospital, or worse.

Meanwhile, NSW is heading for a stoush, with the coroner set to tell an obstinate State Government that pill testing is the way forward.

It's understandable that the war-on-drugs mob continues to scream into their own personally curated voids. Drugs are bad. Don't touch drugs. That approach has the nice get-out-of-jail-free effect that, if something does go wrong, people can say "I told you so".

RELATED: Coroner's draft recommendations include pill testing

"I told you so" is easy, lazy, and always too late.

It is far harder for politicians to stick their necks out and say: "OK, I accept kids are going to take drugs and we should do something to keep them safe".

Politicians must stop pretending that people won’t use drugs at festivals. Picture: Supplied
Politicians must stop pretending that people won’t use drugs at festivals. Picture: Supplied

It's riskier, because if authorities are seen to do anything different to shouting "No!", the boring and binary banality of the debate around pill testing decrees that is pretty much a "Yes!".

In NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian is reportedly planning to ignore the coroner's report that recommends pill testing.

Deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame is set to release her findings in a couple of weeks after investigating six music festival deaths.

RELATED: 'Pill testing no cure-all, but worth exploring'

Not good enough for the government though. Not good enough that an experienced mind sifted through the evidence.

"(Ms Berejiklian's) position on this issue is well known and is not going to change," a spokesperson said.

NSW coroner Harriet Grahame is due to recommend pill tests when she hands down her findings into festival drug-related deaths. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/ News Corp
NSW coroner Harriet Grahame is due to recommend pill tests when she hands down her findings into festival drug-related deaths. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/ News Corp

No matter the evidence, the expert advice?

Politicians change their minds all the time when it comes to money, or responding to polls.

But when there is an ideological brain block, like this one against testing, no facts are enough to shift it.

RELATED: Pill testing is just a mask for the real issue

Overseas and domestic trials are not enough. Nor are the considered opinions of the Australian Medical Association, or the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, or the Royal Australasian College of Practitioners.

The NSW coroner is also set to recommend the scrapping of sniffer dogs at festivals. Picture: Damian Shaw/News Corp
The NSW coroner is also set to recommend the scrapping of sniffer dogs at festivals. Picture: Damian Shaw/News Corp

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall is consistently "zero tolerance" on drugs. He has said pill testing would send a "dangerous message". His government talks about the "scourge of drugs" and "strict no-tolerance".

(The Advertiser reported yesterday that his sniffer dog crackdown, sending woofers into schools to route out drugs, has been entirely ignored by principals.)

RELATED: 'I didn't think anyone would die'

Health Minister Stephen Wade has used vague objections to pill testing. Like "it sends the wrong message", and "fosters a false sense of security".

It's just true to say that the "say no to drugs" message is not stopping things going wrong. People are still dying at music festivals.

This summer, it's time to stop pretending that we can stop young people experimenting with drugs.

Jennie Ross-King, Julie Tam and John Tam during the inquest into the suspected drug-related deaths of six young people at NSW music festivals. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Rae
Jennie Ross-King, Julie Tam and John Tam during the inquest into the suspected drug-related deaths of six young people at NSW music festivals. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Rae

Maybe there's something special about politicians that they were particularly obedient in their youth, that if someone told them not to do something they'd defer to authority.

That wouldn't be the only way in which politicians are strange, and often unlike the people they represent. And that includes all those young people who will continue to test boundaries out of rebelliousness, or a sense of invincibility, or simply in the name of fun. Those pollies may not accept pill testing as standard.

RELATED: Festival organisers need to face facts over drug deaths

But it is beyond negligent of them to continue to stick their fingers in their ears when it comes to harm minimisation.

It seems to have gone missing in this whole debate that harm minimisation is - according to the Federal Health Department - "a key policy of Australian state and federal governments".

The policy, the philosophy, accepts that drug use is inevitable. That, while we should aim to reduce demand and supply, we should also aim to reduce harm.

Pill testing encourages festival goers into medical tents and asking more questions. Picture: iStock
Pill testing encourages festival goers into medical tents and asking more questions. Picture: iStock

Harm reduction says: Let's educate people about drugs, go after the suppliers, and do what we can to stop kids dying from pingers this summer.

Not by shouting "No!" at them. Ms Grahame, in her coroner's report, will urge organisers to ensure they have chill out spaces, shade, lots of drinking water.

RELATED: Police, sniffer dogs 'contributed' to festival deaths

She will talk about the role of police, whether uniforms and dogs might prompt people to either scoff what they have in their pockets before going in, or frighten them off seeking help if they get into trouble.

A pill testing machine is seen during a briefing with Australian medical practitioners. Picture: AAP Image/Jeremy Piper
A pill testing machine is seen during a briefing with Australian medical practitioners. Picture: AAP Image/Jeremy Piper

As for pill testing, it's not just about sticking tablets through a spectrometer in case there are nasties in there.

It's about getting festival-goers through the medical tent, where they can ask questions, be warned, know what to look out for, and know what to do if they have a dangerous or deadly drug.

RELATED: We must see pill testing for what it really is

It's also about warning systems if there is a strain of dodgy ecstasy, with poisonous fillers or unexpected strength - research shows that can dry up a market for a particular dealer. And it's about data.

And it might just be that if people can have informed conversations about the drugs they're going to take anyway, they'll make it through the festival season and many summers beyond that.

@ToryShepherd



Man impersonates brother to stay out of jail

premium_icon Man impersonates brother to stay out of jail

A GLADSTONE man’s plan to stay out of jail was foiled after he gave officers his...

Fitness champion goes from strength to strength

premium_icon Fitness champion goes from strength to strength

A Gladstone Fitness competitor has recently won at the ICN World Titles.

New drug education program for students

premium_icon New drug education program for students

The program will teach students about the harms of drug and alcohol