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Drug Testing At Australian Music Festivals: Will It Happen?

Written by Tom Williams on December 11, 2015

This week, Music Feeds published the results of a poll in which 83 per cent of over 10,000 respondents said they’re in favour of Australian music festivals introducing drug testing, so we’ve talked to some drug experts to see how these services could be implemented down under.

Around the world, drugs at music events have been tested in different ways. Paul Dillon, founder of Drug & Alcohol Research & Training Australia (DARTA), supports the idea in principal, but says the Australian government is only likely to support testing locally if the technology is top-notch.

“If it ever got up in Australia, the only way that it would ever be government sanctioned is if it was very sophisticated checking… which would be very costly, and that’s why in reality I don’t think we’re going to see this happen any time soon,” Mr Dillon says.

“It couldn’t be a simple reagent test — a booth at the front scraping pills — because that doesn’t provide very much information.”

While supports drug testing at music events, Mr Dillon says he doesn’t want the tests to be seen as something which will prevent all drug-related deaths.

“My problem with pill testing is it’s not a silver bullet. Pill testing will not give you information on the quantity of the drug, it will just tell you what drug is present,” he says.

“We’re setting up pill testing to fail at the moment. Some people have said, ‘If we had pill testing this person wouldn’t have died.’

“That’s a really dangerous statement, because we don’t know what these people have died from and we most probably won’t know for quite a long time.”

Another aspect of drug testing to be considered is its legal implications in Australia, which involve criminal and civil liability issues according to Will Tregoning, Director of drug law reform advocacy group Unharm.

Mr Tregoning, who also believes Australia “should be pressing for laboratory-grade testing,” says that despite legal issues, some of Australia’s state-level drug laws already have a supportive basis for drug testing.

“In New South Wales you wouldn’t even need to amend legislation to start a service,” he says. “We could pretty much start one tomorrow.”

Mr Tregoning says police have suggested that operators of drug checking services in New South Wales would not necessarily be at risk of being charged with drug possession or supply, because they wouldn’t hold any drugs for long enough to be considered as having control of them.

“The main risk would be for the clients of the service,” he says. “If you’re standing in the queue at a drug checking service, that would constitute reasonable suspicion for a police officer to search you on suspicion that you’re carrying drugs, and that would be hugely detrimental to the service and to the people.”

Mr Tregoning believes festival drug tests could follow the lines of existing needle and syringe programs, which have “a formal protocol for police to not actively seek to arrest people for drug possession and drug use offences” in a certain area.

“To get that, there would need to be political buy-in. It will only be if the Premier or the Police Minister back it that the police will feel confident about formalising that protocol,” he says.

With these ideas in mind, Mr Tregoning believes it’s inevitable that drug checking services will come into widespread use at Australian music events. “It’s not like we have to invent this from the ground up,” he says.

Even with some legal basis for implementing drug testing at Aussie music events, it’s clear that more advocacy, more government support and investment in high-grade testing technology is needed for such services to be introduced, and to make sure they work to the best of their abilities. If it helps save lives, it’s probably worth it.

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