In an Australian first, the University of Melbourne's Student Union voted on Thursday to provide students with drug harm reduction packs, free of charge. They hope these will be available to students, on campus, within the next fortnight.
The packs themselves will contain reagent kits, more commonly known as pill-testing kits, as well as information on how the testing kits work and their limitations, possession laws and rights, and advice on sensible drug use.
Thursday's motion, the brainchild of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), passed unanimously through the student union's overseeing Student Council, despite the council's broad political makeup.
Nick Kent, President of the SSDP, said his group was glad to get the council's backing after so much careful research and collaboration with harm reduction organisations. "I'm not surprised by this positive response because there's a certain amount of common sense that comes into this argument," he told VICE. "But at the same time, I was pleasantly heartened by their response."
"We had one conservative candidate ask some very valid questions about the legality and financial aspects of what we're doing and they were obviously answered and he voted yes."
Pill testing remains a highly contentious issue in the broader community. While the Federal Senate passed a Greens motion earlier this month calling on the Government to end the use of sniffer dogs at festivals, state governments have been highly reluctant to introduce pill testing facilities. NSW Premier Mike Baird said in March that pill testing at festivals was the equivalent of condoning drug use, and ruled out using taxpayer money to support "illegal drug dealers." As he told Channel Seven's Sunrise, "Just don't do it. That is the best form of safety. Don't take pills and you'll be fine."
But Nick Kent, along with several prominent Australian doctors, argues harm reduction is the best way forward. And while the SSDP was founded on a policy of harm reduction, Nick said it wasn't until he offhandedly spoke with a member of the Student Council that they'd considered introducing a program like this.
"She was reading some of our literature on drug testing and I asked 'is this something we could actually get passed?' and she said 'yes'. So we got to work that day."
The motion comes with certain caveats. After receiving advice from chemists and toxicologists, the council will have to explain to students that the kits are "less than perfect." While they can roughly indicate a drug's active ingredient, they can't determine what other chemicals the drug may have been cut with. This is an obvious shortcoming, which Nick hopes to get around by using the uni's chemistry equipment to offer some more rigorous testing services.
"The holy grail of pill testing is something called gas-chromatography mass-spectrography, or GCMS," Nick explains. GCMS is considered the gold-standard in the drug testing world, as it can identify almost any chemical in a drug compound. Thursday's motion called on the university to open up their GCMS services for the purpose of drug testing, but this will involve working through a host a highly complicated legal issues which are more prohibitive than simply distributing reagent kits. The SSDP hopes they'll be able to work with the university to offer GCMS testing within the next six months to a year.
"In the meantime, as a grassroots student organisation, unfortunately this is all that we can do," Nick says. "These aren't foolproof and that's why we're taking our time to develop appropriate disclaimers and literature to go with the packs and make it very clear to people that this is a small measure in terms of understanding the substances they're taking."
The UMSU also expects some backlash from the wider community. "It's potentially going to look a bit weird, because I know a lot of people are concerned about drugs," says President of UMSU, Tyson Holloway-Clarke. "But [SSDP]'ve done a really good job of presenting the case that the council found very persuasive."
Nick argues the evidence is on their side, and that research shows harm reduction policies like this don't encourage drug consumption. "This is something that a large portion of students are going to do anyway, and as a student union, as a student organisation with drug law reform in mind, we have a duty of care to these people, to these friends, to provide them with the means to do it as safely as possible."
The motion needs to be ratified by the Student Council again in two weeks, by which time the SSDP hopes to have the kits ready for distribution.
A representative from SSDP Australia told VICE they've been contacted by people from over 20 different universities around the country interested in similar schemes this year alone.
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