Researchers Question Why Public Support Has Not Prompted Pill Testing Reform

Poppy Morandin and Jimmy Singh.

 

While almost two‐thirds of the public support pill testing at music festivals, no state government has formally adopted the harm reduction method.

The data, uncovered by findings from the Australian National University’s Australian Election Study, illustrates a strong public preference for the measure, in light of the several deaths due to drug overdoses at music festivals.

The Australian Electoral Study is “the leading study of political attitudes and behaviour in Australia” and surveyed attitudes immediately after the federal election in 2019.

63% of the survey respondents agreed that pill testing should be allowed at music festivals, including 33% who strongly agreed.

Comparatively, 22% disagreed, with 13% in strong disagreement.

Despite majority support, beyond trials held in the Australian Capital Territory, this has not translated into policy in other jurisdictions.

In a paper published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Review, ANU’s Ian McAllister and Toni Makkai stated that “results show that there is a high level of political polarisation surrounding opinions among both voters and political elites.”

“This issue must be addressed if the policy is to be advanced as part of an overall harm reduction approach to drug use.” they continued.

In analysing the results, Prof Ian McAllister and Prof Toni Makkai contended that young people and “those who do not attend church are most likely to express support.”

“Supporters of other liberal social opinions, such as the legalisation of marijuana, are also strongly supportive of pill testing. Those who vote for one of the two main conservative parties are less likely to support pill testing.” they summarised.

Following the deaths of six young people, during or just after attending music festivals in New South Wales, the Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame recommended pill testing as one of the numerous methods to prevent similar tragedies.

All died as a result of taking ‘MDMA’ or ecstasy, with five of six also having other drugs in their system.

The coroner’s report contended that the government should permit and facilitate organisations such as Pill Testing Australia “to run front of house medically supervised pill testing/drug checking at music festivals in NSW with a pilot date starting the summer of 2019–20.”

Despite this, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian dismissed the possibility of introducing pill testing, even before the official release of findings.

“Drug checking would seem to fall squarely within the government’s harm reduction policy framework and requires close consideration.” contended Ms Grahame.

Two pill testing trials have occurred in the ACT during occurrences of Canberra’s ‘Groovin the Moo’ music festival.

The most recent pilot program in 2019, trialled a medically supervised model in which testing was situated within the medical facility of the festival.

The service was provided by senior chemists, physicians, and other highly trained peers, under the organisation Pill Testing Australia.

It involved festival-goers providing a small sample of the substances they had, which was subsequently tested to identify what they contained.

Dr Caldicott, Emergency Consultant at the Calvary Hospital and member of Pill Testing Australia stated the aim of testing was: ““to ensure that festival goers are not harmed or killed consuming drugs.”

“We can identify harmful substances, and, with that information, we can change the way potential consumers use their drugs or, in some cases, deter them from taking drugs altogether. By doing so, it follows that we can reduce the incidence of overdose at festivals.” she explained.

The trial was branded a success, with 230 festival-goers utilising the service and seven people resultingly dumping their pills, after it was revealed that they contained the potentially lethal ‘n-ethylpentylone’.

The most common substance found was MDMA, along with cocaine, ketamine, and methamphetamines.

Despite opponents of pill testing branding it incompatible with the current law, Detective Superintendent Smith of the ACT Police stated “I believe that the co-existence of pill testing and ACT policing at the two Groovin’ in the Moo festivals has been a success.”

“Police were briefed on the existence of the pill testing capability and the police protocols surrounding being in the vicinity of and entering the Health Precinct.” he explained.

In her reasoning, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame noted how “no legislative change was required” and how there was no evidence before her “to suggest that the ACT method would not work in NSW”.

In NSW, ‘MDMA’ or ‘ecstasy’ is a prohibited drug, pursuant to schedule 1 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).

Other prohibited drugs include cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine, ketamine, and psilocybin.

Pursuant to section 10 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act, a person who has a prohibited drug in his or her possession is guilty of an offence.

Drug possession charges in NSW carries a maximum penalty of up to 2-years imprisonment and/or a $2,200 fine, with a criminal conviction. A criminal conviction can still be avoided if the charge is dismissed under a section 10 non-conviction sentence. This is assuming the matter is dealt with in a court.

Police now have the discretion to issue an on-the-spot fine of $400, by way of Penalty Infringement Notice to those found to be possession of a prohibited drug, in accordance with Schedule 4 of the Criminal Procedure Regulation 2017 (NSW).

For this mode of proceeding to be available, the amount of the drug must weigh no more than the ‘small quantity’ for that drug, which can be found in Schedule 1 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).

For MDMA or ‘ecstasy’ this amount is no more than 0.25 grams if in capsule form, or 0.75 grams in any other form.

On-the-spot fines are not applicable to situations involving cannabis. But, the cannabis cautioning scheme applies to those in possession of cannabis in certain circumstances.

Have a question? Get in touch with our criminal lawyers in Parramatta today.

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