Back in July, the Herald Sun ran an exclusive, announcing that Victoria Police was pushing to launch a text message warning system that could alert the public to dangerous drugs.
The plan came to light in the wake of a bad batch of drugs hitting the popular Chapel Street nightspot, killing three young people on a single Saturday night. VICE published a leaked police memo after the deaths, revealing Victoria Police had tested the drugs—and knew they were dangerous—but had decided not to warn the public.
The Herald's story signalled a significant shift in Victoria Police's approach to harm minimisation —citing leaked minutes from a January meeting of the Liquor Forum. "One option proposed by VicPol is to establish mechanism for sending out key messages to venues and patrons," the paper reported, "once a significant issue has been identified and communicating details will assist in minimising harm."
However, when contacted by VICE about the plan, Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville responded she has "no idea about this." The proposal, it seems, never came across her desk. A spokesperson for the minister said Victoria Police had asked the Herald Sun not to run the story back in July, saying it was "not something they would ever pursue."
Victoria Police confirmed this when contacted by VICE saying that although "Victoria Police has strong concerns about drug use and drug overdoses across the state, including any drug activity in the Stonnington and Port Phillip areas... We need to change the attitude where people think recreational drug use is 'okay.'"
But according to Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) president Penny Hill, warning systems like this already exist around the world. Hill points to the Dutch Drug Information Monitoring System (DIMS) as the high water mark—a network of 20–30 testing centres around the Netherlands that can catch rapid changes in the recreational drug market, and warn the public. The DIMS service is respected and widely used in the Netherlands. In the past 20 years, more than 100,000 samples have been handed into their facilities for testing.
In 2015, DIMS testing picked up dangerous "Superman" pills circulating in Europe. However, the UK Government decided not to issue a warning, and four people died in Britain from the drugs. "A system like the DIMS service is very much needed in Australia, to prevent [novel psychoactive substance]-related harms and provide evidence-informed responses to the community," Hill said.
As for Victoria Police, they still see their role in harm minimisation as limited to "detecting, disrupting, and arresting those people who drive harm in our community by trafficking drugs." Coming into another festival season, the red zone for drug deaths in Australia, all we can do is hope the business as usual approach will somehow produce a different result.
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