In an open letter to Australia's state and territory leaders, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has expressed its support for pill testing, confirming evidence indicates the measure could minimise harm. In doing so, it has joined a large and growing chorus urging politicians to conduct pill testing trials.
“Ideally, we would all like young people and the wider public not to use drugs illicitly, however, the reality is that they do in large numbers and the moral message to abstain from taking drugs is not getting through," said Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, President of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians's Chapter of Addiction Medicine, in a press release.
“The evidence to date shows that existing policies in place at festivals to discourage drug taking, including heavy police presence, sniffer dogs and searches, are not effective. These policies are failing our communities and our young people, leading to unnecessary deaths."
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians represents over 17,000 physicians and 8000 trainees. On top of educating doctors and facilitating medical research, its goals also include advocating scientifically backed healthcare policies, particularly on topical issues.
Pill testing has been a highly topical issue in recent weeks, as the summer music festival season has come into full swing. So far, five people have died in NSW and one in Victoria during this season. Most recently, 19-year-old Alexandra Ross-King died last weekend at Sydney festival FOMO after consuming an unknown substance, though the circumstances surrounding her death are still under investigation.
Ross-King's family have come out in support of pill testing, as have the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Festival Association, the Noffs Foundation, the majority of Australian voters, and even Sunrise host Kochie.
However, despite this overwhelming support, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has remained staunchly against introducing the measure, claiming that evidence does not indicate pill testing will minimise all harm.
"Pill testing doesn't deal with overdoses. Pill testing doesn't deal with the fact that drugs and alcohol are a lethal combination. Pill testing doesn't deal with the fact that what's OK for one person's body isn't OK for another person's body," said Perejiklian in an interview with Today earlier this week.
"Pill testing could unfortunately give people a false sense of security because we know that what is most lethal is the actual ecstasy."
While pill testing may not address every danger that comes with taking drugs, evidence shows that at the very least it mitigates some of them. After the first trial of a pill testing service in Australia was conducted at Canberra's Groovin The Moo last April, a subsequent report by the STA-SAFE consortium found it was an "overwhelming success".
"Three quarters of those who brought drugs for testing received some [alcohol and other drug] brief intervention counselling," said the report. "Forty-two per cent reported that their drug consumption behaviour would change as a result of the testing and 18 per cent indicated that they would either discard the drugs in the amnesty bins provided or were uncertain as to what they would do as a result of the information provided by the service."
This trial was supported by the ACT government in consultation with medical experts, a move the The Royal Australasian College of Physicians urges other states and territories to follow. Pill testing can't be the only tool used to minimise drug-related harm, but that does not mean it should be left unused, particularly as abstinence-only drug education has been ineffective.
"The RACP’s experts in addiction medicine and public health medicine believe the evidence currently available justifies the introduction of carefully designed pill testing trials in Australia," said Dr Lloyd-Jones.
"We call on all governments to consult with addiction medicine physicians, public health medicine physicians, clinical pharmacologists and toxicologists and other relevant experts to develop pill testing trials that are carefully designed and evaluated to inform drug policy and minimise harms to young people and the broader community.”