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Renewed push for pill-testing in more Australian states following latest festival death

A year-long parliamentary inquiry in Western Australia has recommended that pill-testing be introduced in the state and sniffer dogs be dispensed with.

It follows a similar call in New South Wales in spring and current pushes in and .

This weekend marked serious alarm as summer kicked off with one death and numerous overdoses in festivals along the East Coast.

A 24-year old died at Strawberry Field festival in NSW’s Riverina region after on-site medical staff he had reportedly taken a cocktail of GHB, MDMA and cocaine.

Eight men in their 20s were taken to hospital from Festival X in Sydney’s Olympic Park, where four others were charged with supplying drugs.

Two men were treated for suspected overdoses at Spilt Milk festival in Ballarat, Victoria.

The is expected to step up its pleas for action from authorities in case this season is a repeat of the last “summer of death” when six young people died.

The WA Upper House inquiry made 46 recommendations for the to consider.

The thrust reflected a trend elsewhere in the world like Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden where the response was to shift from criminal justice to health-based.

According to the inquiry:

Findings: Drug detection dogs are an unreliable means of detecting drugs at , do not deter people from taking drugs, and often causes risky behaviour.

Recommendations: “The Western Australian government commission an independent evaluation into the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of using drug detection dogs at music festivals in Western Australia.”

Findings: Drug checking services have been operating in Europe for over 20 years, and …(and) do not increase ecstasy use or uptake online pill-testing kits are unreliable.

Recommendation: “The working group consider strategies for optimising safety at music festivals, including the trialling a drug checking service, appropriate drug checking analysis methods and establishing an early warning system to alert people who use ecstasy about new or dangerous substances.”

In June 2019, a study by Edith Cowan University found pill-testing may be the most effective way to reduce harm for people trying ecstasy for the first time.

It also reported that festival attendees were willing to pay an average $12 subsidy for pill-testing services.

Calls in Victoria, Tasmania

Festival scene

The tribes gather

In Victoria, where both the government and opposition parties are adamant there will be no pill-testing at festivals, upper house Liberal MP Craig Ondarchie rocked the boat.

Ondarchie suggested that his party’s health spokesperson, Georgie Crozier, set up a meeting with the Alcohol & Drug Foundation, saying it was essential to be fully-briefed about pill-testing.

So far the political parties have relied on advice from Victoria Police.

The police have said they’ll be out in force at five Victorian festivals, including Falls Festival, Rainbow Serpent and Meredith Music.

The Greens and The Reason Party have called for pill-testing at music events, a move backed by Melbourne’s lord mayor Sally Capp.

In mid-November, the Victorian Ambulance Union also confirmed its support, primarily because it would free up its members for other emergencies, and that a positive outcome on discarded pills would allow other festival attendees and events to be warned by text or social media.

The union’s approach is that the tests be paid for by government and festival promoters.

In Tasmania, the upper house passed a motion after a November 22 debate to urge the government to consider tests.

It was originally tabled in August by independent MP Ruth Forrest but defeated by the two major parties, with just four votes for it.

Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council Tasmania chief executive Alison Lai asked politicians to take the lead on the issue and consider it.

With the help of the Tasmanian Greens, Party In The Paddock offered to hold trials at its February 6—8 2020 event.

“Pill-testing is not a silver bullet, but it’s a proven and positive way to help reduce the tragedy of loosing [sic] people at festivals,” promoter Jesse Higgs posted.

“The more education that we can bring to this health issue at our festival, the better.”

The petition, which went live on November 15, has to date received 1895 signatures.

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