Pill-testing lag dubbed fatal ‘distraction’

Pill Testing Canberra
The NSW government has been urged to reconsider a drug-checking trial. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Drug-checking advocates, including peak medical bodies and union organisations, have urged the NSW government to adopt a drug-checking trial over the summer festival period, with experts unanimously agreeing that a failure to do so will put lives “unnecessarily at risk”.

While giving evidence at budget estimates on Wednesday, NSW Premier Chris Minns said there was no plan for pill testing, with drug reform policy on drug checking unlikely to occur until after the drug summit slated for 2024.

He told the committee there wasn’t enough evidence a testing regime would save more lives. He said pill testing would only identify toxic or alien substances but would not screen for drug potency, which wouldn’t reduce the likelihood of overdose.

While technology capable of measuring drug potency does exist, the machines used at mobile testing sites use samples to test the chemical composition of substances.

Pill Testing Canberra
Advocates including the RACGP and unions representing nurses, doctors and paramedics support the trial. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Martin Ollman

However, the chief executive of drug safety advocacy body Unharm, Will Tregoning, said the Premier’s comments were a “distraction”.

“The idea that we delay what is simply a proven service until after this summer, it’s just simply putting people’s life unnecessarily at risk,” he said.

He said the focus of drug-checking services should be on linking people who have “never spoken to a health professional in a consultation that’s informed by analysis”.

“When they leave the service they modify their behaviour in ways that reduce the risk of harm, like a reduction in the amount they use or a decision to discard the drugs,” Mr Tregoning said.

Pill Testing Canberra
Medical bodies and industry groups called on the government to consider a drug-checking trial. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

On Thursday, a joint letter between The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, Health Services Union, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation, was presented to Sydney MP and testing advocate Alex Greenwich.

The independent MP said a drug-checking trial prior could be initiated by NSW Health without legislation, and the results could inform future policy.

“Drug checking will be at the top of the agenda, whether members of the government like it or not at the drug summit, and what we’re saying today is let’s make sure that that top agenda item is informed by evidence,” he said.

“I want to make NSW a safer place sooner than later. 2026 is certainly far too far, 2024 should be the year in which we take action, and 2023 can be the year where we gather the evidence in NSW.”

Sydney MP Alex Greenwich said a drug-checking trial would bolster any policy that would result from a drug summit. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Gaye Gerard

RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine chair Hester Wilson said while parents and governments could not stop people, especially young adults, from taking drugs, they could reduce harm associated with drug taking.

“I don’t want my kids to use drugs, but I know it is really possible that they will … but what I want as a parent is to ensure that can happen as safely as possible,” she said.

Ms Wilson also referenced UK research that indicated that conversations with healthcare professionals could also change behavioural patterns that in some instances stopped future drug use.

Although drug safety checking “can’t solve everything”, she said it was a “really important factor” in reducing risk.

“It is really important that the conversations that are being had are with evidence-based, trusted, independent professionals,” she said.

“(They) have some credibility because of their independence and can support my child, and all of our children, if they’re (going to take drugs).

“From a health perspective, it’s around decreasing harm and keeping our kids alive.”

During budget estimates on Thursday, Health Minister Ryan Park affirmed that while there were no plans for a drug-testing trial, the government was not “closing the door” on reform.

“We are continuing to look at a range of different issues in this space (of safety at music festivals),” he said.

Mr Park said pill testing wasn’t a “silver bullet” to stop deaths at music festivals, adding that the way a “person’s body interacts with the substance” is something that can’t be measured.

He added that the government had rolled out other festival safety measures like additional peer-to-peer support and first aid and supplied water and harm-reduction information.