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The politics of pill testing: even the ACT Chief Minister is over it

Australia’s first trial of pill testing at a music festival came and went over the weekend, but one can’t say the same for the political argument that it somehow means the government is endorsing or encouraging recreational drug use.

ACT Minister for Health Meegan Fitzharris announced a trial of the “harm reduction” service would go ahead at the Canberra leg of Groovin’ the Moo, just three days before the touring festival hit the University of Canberra on Sunday. By then, even Chief Minister Andrew Barr was sick of hearing about it.

Barr told an ABC radio interviewer he was happy for the trial to proceed and that most people supported the idea, but personally did not have a very strong view either way.

Fitzharris said the Liberal Party’s shadow attorney-general Jeremy Hanson was “simply wrong” to suggest the territory government might be held responsible if someone had been poisoned by drugs after getting them tested, or that the trial was endorsing the choice to take drugs for fun.

A sign at a British music festival in 2013.

“It’s essentially saying we’re the pill popping centre of Australia; come to Canberra because this is where you can get your drugs tested,” said Hanson, while emergency services took a more nuanced position.

Police only made one drug-related arrest at the event and steered clear of the pill-testing tent, which they officially supported as a harm reduction initiative at the same time as making it clear they did not condone illegal drug use.

Chief ambulance officer Howard Wren said he did not encourage recreational drug use but would “strongly encourage” people to use the testing service on Sunday if they decided to do it anyway. The ACT Health website explains how it works:

“The service will provide you with information on the contents, the risks involved, and how to reduce them. Even with laboratory level testing, service staff never advise users that the drug they are taking is ‘safe.’

“Also, chemical analysis is also not able to determine with certainty whether a person will have a toxic reaction to taking a pill, although certain contaminants are highly toxic and likely to cause harm if ingested. Illicit drugs such as amphetamines and MDMA are inherently unsafe and pill testing cannot certify that a person will not suffer an adverse reaction as a result of taking them.”

In the end, two out of 85 samples were found to contain potentially deadly substances and went straight into the bleach-filled amnesty bin, where attendees could ditch their drugs, no questions asked.

A range of other unwanted impurities, fillers or substitute pharmaceuticals were identified in about equal proportions to the MDMA Canberra’s young drug users thought they were buying.

While 128 people went into the tent, only five decided to throw their drugs in the amnesty bin.

The ACT government had previously approved a trial at the Spilt Milk festival, which was held on Commonwealth land in the Parliamentary Triangle, but the pill testing tent was cancelled with organisers blaming the National Capital Authority, and the federal agency saying they simply hadn’t submitted the correct paperwork on time.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.