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An Australian Doctor Has Vowed to Start Testing Pills at Festivals

Dr Alex Wodak has said, "I am prepared to break the law to save young people's lives."

by VICE Staff
29 February 2016, 12:00am

A drug testing kit presenting a positive reading on Ritalin. Image via

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation (ADLRF), has vowed to defy the government and begin testing drugs at music festivals. The announcement comes after several people died at festivals across the country last year, most after thinking they'd taken MDMA.

Details of the plan are yet to emerge, except that the trial is planned for a festival in New South Wales. The Baird Government is firmly against testing, telling the ABC they will actively discourage Dr Wodak. "This won't be happening here in NSW," Premier Baird said. "In very simple terms this is an absolutely ridiculous proposal." Dr Wodak has defended the scheme, telling Fairfax Media "I am prepared to break the law to save young people's lives."

NSW police commissioner Troy Grant has also argued against pill testing for an op-ed in The Age. "I have no firm evidence before me that pill testing will save a life," he wrote. "This government cannot act as a quality assurer for drug dealers whose pills may kill one of our young people."

However, early research does show pill testing can play a role in minimising harm associated with taking illicit drugs. A study in Austria unsurprisingly found people were less likely to take drugs they found were contaminated. More broadly, pill testing is widely supported by the people it would stand to potentially benefit, with around 82 percent of 16 to 25-year-olds saying they would want to see it introduced.

If the ADLRF do go ahead with the plan, testing at a single event may cost of much as $100,000, which they will apparently have to raise without government support. This money would cover the testing equipment, as well as processing and an independent review of the results, to ensure any evidence that testing reduced the harm caused by illicit drugs could be verified.

A pill test of ecstasy. Image via

VICE recently smuggled pill testing kits into an unnamed Australian music festival, offering tests for ecstasy, ketamine, and LSD. The process involved scraping a tiny amount of the drug into a glass vial and adding a testing solution. The colour of the resulting solution then indicated the drug's active ingredient. What we found was that many people weren't taking the drugs they'd expected.

With ecstasy-related emergency room admissions nearly doubling between 2010 and 2015, it's clear the government's approach isn't working. Sniffer dogs at music festivals are also under fire, will MPs warning they can potentially scare partygoers into taking all of their drugs at once to avoid detection. The number of illicit drug offences has also been rising in Australia since 2008.

Dr Wodak, who played an integral role in setting up Australia's first—and only—supervised injecting room in Kings Cross, advocates treating drugs as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. It's a stance also backed by The Greens, who are pushing for the decriminalisation through their upcoming National Drug Summit to be held on Wednesday.