As New Zealand legalises pill testing, Australia watches death toll rise

Photo: Pixabay

New Zealand health minister Andrew Little announced on April 9 that the 12-month-long interim laws permitting legal pill testing at festivals will be made permanent as the services have been making a positive impact.

Passed in December, the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2020 permits appointed service providers to test any drug an individual presents at an event, as well as provide them with information about its contents and advise them on the potential harms.

Testing has been available at certain NZ festivals over recent years, which have been run by voluntary organisations, including KnowYourStuffNZ (KYSNZ).

These services were operating in a legal grey area, with event organisers open for prosecution for knowingly providing a venue for illicit drug use.

Little outlined that after a summer of legal drug checking services it is apparent that their availability has made an impact on people’s drug-taking behaviour. It has also made it easier for “medical staff to treat people who have overdosed, because they know what they’re dealing with”.

Despite numerous drug-related deaths and hospitalisations in Australia, along with two successful government-sanctioned trials, a sustained campaign to implement these services and various recommendations from inquiries and coronial inquests, pill testing remains illegal.

Proof is in the testing

In its decision to legalise pill testing, the NZ government cited the findings of the Victorian University of Wellington’s Final Report into Drug Checking at New Zealand Festivals.

The report said that 68% of those surveyed who had used a KYSNZ service reported having changed their behaviour afterwards. Of those, 87% said their understanding of harm reduction had improved, with 53% stating it had substantially improved.

Medical professionals supported the introduction of drug checking at festivals; they reported often being confronted with patrons with unusual symptoms caused by unknown substances. They said that young people were going to continue to take drugs regardless of their legal status.

Festival organisers were keen for the law to be changed, as those who had engaged KYSNZ services had seen fewer serious drug-related incidents. KYSNZ volunteers said they had witnessed festival goers disposing of drugs that were found to be hazardous on testing.

The report concluded that there was no evidence that pill testing services promote drug use, or encourage those who haven’t used illegal drugs in the past to start. It also said that the engagement medical staff have with patrons can lead to long-term behavioural change.

Pill testing in Europe

According to the New York Times, New Zealand has become the second nation worldwide to officially legalise pill testing.

The first country to do so was the Netherlands in 1999, although it had drug-checking services operating since 1992.

Pill testing has operated in numerous other European nations since the 1990s, although this continues to be in a legal grey area. These countries include Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Spain. The European Union has produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

In a 2018 in The Conversation, University of New South Wales Professor Alison Ritter outlined the benefits of pill testing. These include altering the black market, as once-dodgy drugs are identified making it difficult for dealers to keep peddling them. Following that, ingredients used in drugs begin to match the types of substances that consumers are supposed to be buying, rather being mixed with adulterants.

Along with the potential to change patron’s drug-taking behaviour, Ritter pointed out that the exchange also allows trained medical staff to consult with people who may be experiencing acute drug problems and have a conversation about options available to them.

Another key outcome of pill testing is that the data captured can be used to establish an understanding of what drugs are available on the street and it allows for public warnings advising on specific batches of drugs that are hazardous.

Fatalities continue

Over 13 months ending in November 2015, six young people died in drug-related circumstances at Australian festivals. Health experts called for pill testing. The then NSW Premier Mike Baird and police minister Troy Grant were particularly opposed, maintaining it encouraged dealers.

With no harm reduction measures in place, five young people die in drug-related circumstances in 2018-19 music festivals in NSW. As the death count grew, Premier Gladys Berejiklian refused to even consider pill testing.

Instead, she backed a heavy-handed law-and-order approach. She convened an expert panel which recommended tougher laws for drug suppliers. She attempted to establish a festival licensing scheme that looked set to destroy the entire industry.

Deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame investigated the five deaths and released her findings in November 2019. She included a recommendation that pill testing be implemented, along with the removal of drug dogs from festival sites.

Following an investigation into five drug-related deaths in Victoria, between July 2016 and January 2017, that state’s coroner Paresa Spanos released her findings on April 7. It again called for “the urgent implementation of public services that check the content and purity of illicit drugs”.

Pill Testing Australia held its second ACT government-sanctioned drug checking trial at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April 2019. At both its successful trials it detected potentially lethal substances, which their owners promptly placed in the amnesty bins.

The campaign for pill testing in Australia has quietened down ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. However, people continue to take drugs with unknown contents at other locations and when they overdose it does not make the news.

These drugs could be tested at permanent drug checking sites, like those that operate in the Netherlands.

Yet, unlike those in New Zealand, the major party MPs still prefer to keep their heads buried firmly in the sand.

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where this article first appeared.]

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