ALISON LAI: Debate about proposals to test drugs at Tasmanian music festivals is complicated by misunderstandings
ALL of us have likely experienced that awkward moment in a conversation when we realise the person that we’re talking to has misunderstood what we’re saying.
To avoid confusion, misunderstanding or perhaps an argument we often have to politely interject, backtrack and start the conversation again.
I feel like this is the situation that’s happening across Tasmania, and Australia when we’re talking about pill-testing.
It is a topic that interests many, but one that is often misunderstood.
The most common misunderstandings are about how it works and why. To assist, I offer the following facts for the Tasmanian community.
PILL-TESTING is first and foremost a health service, staffed by qualified medical professionals.
WHEN a person enters a pill testing station they are greeted by a qualified counsellor or peer worker, who explains how the service works and asks what substance a person thinks they have and talks to them about the risks of drug taking.
THE INDIVIDUAL provides a sample of their substance to a qualified chemist, who analyses the substance to identify what’s in it using technology that has access to a database of more than 30,000 substances, including synthetics.
THE CHEMIST cannot assess the purity of the drug, but will be able to identify what substances are in the drug sample.
THE PERSON then speaks with a doctor who will talk the individual through the known dangers of consuming the identified substances.
They then speak again to the counsellor or peer worker, who provides them with further information and directs them to an amnesty bin where they can dispose of their drugs.
NEVER at any stage is someone told that an illicit drug is safe. Drug use is never encouraged.
In the 12-15 minutes it takes a person to go through this process, they will have potentially received more information on the risks of illicit drug use than ever before, in real time where they have the opportunity to act.
In one single evening, hundreds of health interventions can be provided at no cost to the Tasmanian taxpayer.
Under-pinned by education and counselling on the hazards of illicit drug use, pill-testing is not a strategy that condones or encourages drug use, which is where the misunderstandings seem to persist.
While offering a pill-testing service will never guarantee that there will be no drug-related deaths at Australian music festivals, the international evidence is indisputable and growing that it significantly reduces the risk.
And even though the process may seem counter-intuitive to the “just say no” strategies we’re used to (which are failing), it is one that works.
This is why the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council of Tasmania supports, at least as a first step, a trial of pill-testing in Tasmania.
We are representing the view of our members, the Tasmanian community service organisations delivering alcohol, tobacco and other drug programs across our island who work every day with Tasmanian families impacted by drugs.
We are listening to many Australian medical experts and learned organisations who have considered the evidence, and support pill-testing.
These include the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Australian Medical Association, Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, National Australian Pharmacy Students’ Association, Ambulance Union State Council, Family Drug Support Australia and the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.
We are continuing to gather and review the most recent evidence, including the results released in the United Kingdom demonstrating the success of their pill-testing trials, where people often disposed of their illicit drugs and attendances at local emergency departments during music festivals were reported to have decreased by up to 95 per cent.
We are paying attention to what is happening in other states and territories, with our eyes closely monitoring Queensland, which is tipped to be the next state to trial pill-testing.
We are monitoring movements overseas where this week Iceland passed legislation to support pill- testing, and the New Zealand Parliament is continuing to discuss plans to have pill-testing at all their music festivals by the end of this year.
We are also listening to our Tasmanian major music festival organisers, who due to the recent spike in drug-related deaths at music festivals, are keen to trial pill-testing to see if it can help here as it has overseas.
Armed with all of this knowledge, when we continue the debate about whether pill-testing should be trialled, we hope the focus shifts away from arguments on whether pill-testing condones drug use, to arguments about whether pill-testing could work alongside Tasmania’s existing education and law and enforcement strategies to help save lives.
After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal?