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Pill testing a life saving success — it's time for government funding

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(image via @FrBower / Twitter)

Australia’s second only pill testing trial at a music festival has been hailed a resounding success.

Harm Reduction Australia (operating as Pill Testing Australia) provided the service at Canberra’s leg of Groovin the Moo festival last month. The key highlights were 171 samples tested from a total of 234 participants, with MDMA being the most commonly identified substance, along with seven dangerous substances containing N-Ethylpentylone identified.

IA spoke with President of Harm Reduction Australia Gino Vumbaca about this year’s pill testing and what is needed to ensure the service can continue in Canberra. Gino explained that Pill Testing Australia is happy to do one free trial in each jurisdiction as a proof of concept, but they have now done two in Canberra and are not able to self-fund further events.

As Vumbaca explains:

We're hoping the [A.C.T.] Government now – particularly when the ANU report comes out in a few months – will have enough information and evidence to consider funding further trials.

 

We're not looking to make money, we're not for profit, we have people putting their hands in their own pockets at the moment to pay for this to be there. Our volunteers came from as far as Perth in some cases to help — they cover their own costs.

 

We won't charge patrons for the service, so that means someone has to pay [for it]. Whilst we are raising money and spending our own money to do it, we have other jurisdictions hopefully in the next 12 months we need to go to.

Asked if the A.C.T. Government or the promoter or both need to step up and cover the costs of future pill testing his answer was a resounding, “Yes, yes exactly”.

A.C.T. Greens spokesperson for drug law reform Shane Rattenbury called on the A.C.T. Government and promoters to

"... find a model that makes this sustainable, whether through Government funding, philanthropic support or contributions from festival organisers, given how important pill testing is as a public health measure. In potentially saving young lives, the Greens believe this is money well spent."

A.C.T. Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris said funding for next year is "an option we need to consider in the future". 

Oppositions spokesperson Jeremy Hanson said 'the cost should be borne by festival promoters and the people taking the drugs'.

It is worth noting that ... seven overdoses and hospital admissions [were avoided] just from this year’s pill testing trial.

Delegations from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and A.C.T. were present at this year’s trial in Canberra, with Vumbaca reporting their involvement was overwhelmingly positive. Pill Testing Australia is currently seeking donations to self-fund trials in other jurisdictions next year.

On the delegations who observed the process this year, Vumbaca had this to say:

They had some scepticism going in, I briefed everybody before they went in and they spent time going through the same experience as the punter at each of the stations setup. When I spoke to them afterwards, they were appreciative but most of them were saying they had a much better understanding now of what pill testing is about.

 

Everyone was very receptive, you have to remember people are coming forward with an illicit substance, into an area to meet with unknown people, they might be nervous but they've already made the commitment they want to find out and want to know, otherwise they wouldn’t have come to see us.

 

There is a lot of noise and information about pill testing, but this is what it actually is. All these points, where you meet the harm reduction worker, the chemist, the medical team, the counsellors, this is what makes up pill testing. It’s not one person standing there with a machine just giving out robotic answers like you got ‘X, X and Y’. It's a 15 to 20-minute process and some stay longer to talk the counsellors more, and that's fine as well.

Vumbaca said he spoke to a lot of people on the way out and the overwhelming comment was, I know a hell of a lot more than when I arrived — about drugs, what I am doing and harms and consequences.

In regard to the high purity detections which were prevalent this year, Vumbaca explained that “even though there may be no contaminants, that comes with its own risks as well, so we talk to them about what some of those risks are, if they say they are still going to take it, how best to manage that risk.”

It is worth noting that all seven substances found with the highly dangerous N-Ethylpentylone were all binned on the advice of the pill testing staff, likely avoiding seven overdoses and hospital admissions just from this year’s pill testing trial.

In terms of the future for pill testing in Australia now, Vumbaca explained that they have also applied to do the last two Spilt Milk but although the A.C.T. Government was happy, "the negotiations stopped because it was clear they weren't going to get approval from the National Capital Authority (NCA) to have it there".

If there were to be a change of Federal government at this Election that would change things regarding expanded event testing in the A.C.T. but there is still the question of requiring funding to continue to offer the service in the A.C.T. in the future.

There have been some calls for the A.C.T. Government to now open a permanent pill testing medical facility in Canberra, offering a year-round testing service not just at specific festivals.

Vumbaca supports this:

Groovin the Moo is great, and even if we get other festivals, currently it's one day a year that people in Canberra are able to access a service like that ... If people understand the rationale for it and see it as the good public health measure that it is, why isn't it available on a daily basis for people? We can't be at every venue so it’s a good idea to have a fixed location where people can get testing done.

It takes a team of experts and expert equipment to offer a pill testing service. At this year's Groovin the Moo event Pill Testing Australia used two machines to analyse the substances, one purchased at their own cost of $50,000 and one machine borrowed.

Vumbaca explains:

“Even though our team is volunteers, they're professionals: doctors, analytical chemists, drug and alcohol counsellors, social workers, experts in harm reduction and peer counselling, our team is very qualified.”

These professionals can’t be expected to volunteer endlessly at every event, with Pill Testing Australia picking up the tab each time. Now is the time for the A.C.T. Government and promoters to work together on a funding model for next year, possibly with Federal government support.

Vumbaca estimates that events may cost in the range of $40,000 to $60,000 per day for future events but this pales by comparison to the approximate $100,000 in intensive medical care and transport for a single overdose victim.

The A.C.T. test case has demonstrated that pill testing can save lives. Now is the time to take it further and fund it permanently in the A.C.T. and nation-wide.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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