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Thousands of Free Pill Testing Kits Will Be Available at Music Festivals This Summer

It's hoped they'll help young people party more safely, but advocates say it's only the beginning.
November 21, 2016, 12:00am

VICE testing people's drugs at a bush doof earlier this year. Photography by Dan Roxane

Thousands of free DIY pill testing kits will be made available at major Australian music festivals this summer, as part of a joint initiative between national drug reform organisation Harm Reduction Australia and other advocacy groups including Dancewise. With drug-related festival deaths on the rise, it's hoped that the kits will help young people party more safely—but it's not the solution that advocates wanted.

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Speaking to VICE, Harm Reduction Australia's president Gino Vumbaca explained how comprehensive clinical testing labs, which operate at major European music festivals, are a far more trustworthy alternative to reagent kits. These labs allow patrons to receive expert advice and chemical analysis of the pills they're taking. The results are much more detailed and foolproof than those provided by DIY kits, which can detect active ingredients but not their dosage.

"We've been trying to get state governments to introduce a proper drug testing regime like they do throughout Austria, Switzerland, London now as well. But to no avail—the government won't even contemplate our proposal," Vumbaca said.

Vumbaca argues that not only are clinical labs much more effective than DIY kits, but they also have a significant impact on the drug market. "Manufacturers of pills are put on notice," he told VICE.

State governments, particularly New South Wales where Australia's most recent festival deaths have occurred, have been slow to adopt drug harm minimisation reforms. Instead, politicians tend to preach an abstinence policy.

"It's everybody's individual responsibility not to take drugs and put a gun in their mouth or play Russian roulette with God knows what they are going to ingest," NSW police minister Troy Grant said after the hospitalisation of a 23-year-old woman at Field Day festival in January.

NSW Premier Mike Baird appeared on Sunrise with a similar message: "Don't do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don't take the pills and you'll be fine."

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Speaking to VICE in May, drug reform advocate and emergency room doctor David Caldicott called this an outdated approach—about as practical as trying to get young people to abstain from sex before marriage. "We're kind of like the condoms of the harm reduction world. We're trying to keep people safe," he explained.

Vumbaca says that—with clinical labs at festivals off the table for now—the best alternative is to give people a way to make a more educated decision about taking drugs. He's hoping to roll out the pill testing kits to festivals before the end of the year.

Harm Reduction Australia is working with kit manufacturers to make sure they can supply the most reliable tests for the best price. Completely free to patrons, the kits—which are available legally over the counter for around $10—will hopefully be available for the duration of the festival season. "There are limitations with providing them free of charge, in that we have to raise the funding first. We've got a fair bit, but we don't want to start a program and then run out a couple of weeks into it," Vumbaca said. To ensure they don't run out of money to keep supplying kits, Harm Reduction Australia will launch a crowd funding campaign later this month.

It is hoped that the initiative will run throughout Australia, although Vumbaca admits it will be based predominantly on the east coast. "It depends on whether we can find enough volunteers—people who understand enough about the kits and how they work, because we're not just going to hand them out," he told VICE.

Both Caldicott and Vumbaca agree that DIY testing kits are a "band aid solution" to an ongoing problem. "But if we can't introduce a pill testing regime that provides proper results, people will just have to use the cheaper and less accurate version," Vumbaca said.

"We've tried everything with the government, but nothing seems to resonate with them because their moral position is that people shouldn't use drugs full stop."

Troy Grant's office declined to comment when VICE got in touch this morning. Follow Kat on Twitter