A march in support of pill testing was held in Sydney in January. Picture: Monique Harmer
A march in support of pill testing was held in Sydney in January. Picture: Monique Harmer

Festival to test pills after deaths

POPULAR music festival Groovin The Moo will test illicit drugs at its Canberra event for the second consecutive year after the trial was approved by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

The Minister gave the green light to the trial after it was last year declared a success, with dozens of samples tested and dangerous substances discarded by users.

Five people between the age of 19 and 23 died at music festivals in NSW between September and January, all of them of suspected drug overdoses. One of these was revised after testing revealed the young man had tiger snake venom in his system.

The pill-testing trial will be significantly larger than last year, when 85 substances were tested, according to the STA-SAFE consortium who run the program.

They expect to have two machines at the festival, to be held at Epic Park in April, and will have more staff. They're also expecting more festival-goers to engage in pill testing thanks to media coverage of the issue in recent months.

"It will be bigger because obviously now we have approval well in advance of the pilot, so we can prepare a lot more and there will be a fair bit more promotion about what we're doing," Gino Vumbaca of STA-SAFE told The Canberra Times.

"We expect lot more people to come forward and we expect that will result in lot more people not consuming drugs or moderating what they're about to consume."

Mr Barr said pill testing did "not make taking illicit drugs safe" and stressed that the message would always be, "don't take drugs".

"However, pill testing provides a health intervention at the point when someone is making the decision to take a pill," he said.

"By making this service available at music festivals there is the potential to save lives."

The pill-testing trial will be significantly larger at Groovin The Moo in April, compared to last year.
The pill-testing trial will be significantly larger at Groovin The Moo in April, compared to last year.

The Groovin The Moo trial last year found two highly toxic chemicals in the substances tested including the "absolutely lethal" N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone), a substance responsible for a number of mass overdoses.

It can cause "circulation problems, lethal heart palpitations and hallucinations", Dr David Caldicott told ABC radio at the time.

The people who had these substances were "extremely grateful" they were tested and disposed of them immediately.

The testers also found arnica, which is a muscle rub, and toothpaste, according to Dr Caldicott.

Dr Caldicott said there was now evidence-based results to support the trial.

"At a personal level, it's gratifying to be living in a jurisdiction where the science counts for something. Where there was a lot of anxiety and apprehension about the last event … I think there's a lot more confidence going into this one and it's going to be epic," Dr Caldicott told The Canberra Times.

 

The NSW state government has staunchly rejected pill-testing trials, instead introducing a raft of other measures to festival licensing.
The NSW state government has staunchly rejected pill-testing trials, instead introducing a raft of other measures to festival licensing.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has introduced tough new measures to combat the spate of deaths in the state in the last five months. These include tough licensing provisions for festivals and harsh penalties for dealers.

But the NSW state government has staunchly rejected requests to consider trials of pill testing as a harm reduction measure, saying that despite calls for its introduction by the Royal

Australasian College of Physicians, the government remains unconvinced of the benefits.

"If we thought it would save a single life, of course we would go down that path," she told the Nine network in December.

"Unfortunately, what pill testing doesn't do is really take into account people's different physical attributes. What is safe for one person isn't safe for another."

She announced in October that her government would introduce a tough new law to target and punish dealers who caused deaths, which meant they could be jailed for 25 years.

At the same time she said her government would be convening an expert panel to recommend what other changes could be made to get around the introduction of pill testing.

The NSW government has since announced a raft of alterations to festival licensing, managed by NSW Liquor and Gaming, which have led to two festivals, PSYFARI and Mountain Sounds, cancelling their events. Bluesfest also signalled it would likely stop operating in the state after 2019.


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