MELBOURNE, Australia — When young visitors from around the world headed to Australia’s Groovin the Moo music festival in Canberra last summer, public health policy researchers were watching carefully. In a rare decision, local officials there had allowed the installation of a pill-testing facility, allowing festivalgoers to have illegal substances examined for unusual and potentially even more dangerous additives, without having to fear arrest.
For a long time, authorities at festivals in Australia and elsewhere almost entirely focused on preventing people from taking drugs in the first place. That approach has done little to drive down the number of drug-related deaths, however, and a mounting body of research suggests that pill-testing facilities might be a more promising strategy.
Supporters of drug testing sites acknowledge that there is no safe level of drug consumption, and participants in those tests usually have to sign disclaimers acknowledging that. In some cases, assistance is provided only if participants also attend short counseling sessions on drug use.
Following last summer’s trial effort in Canberra, organizers said they had successfully prevented attendees from unknowingly taking hazardous substances. But in other Australian states, local governments remain opposed, even amid a recent string of deaths.
“Every time there is an event now, people are asking: why aren’t you providing a pill testing facility? Why are people needlessly dying?” said Gino Vumbaca, who works for one of the organizations involved in last year’s test run, the International Harm Reduction Association.
While the idea has recently gained more support, drug tests aren’t new and have also been tried in some parts of the United States. Installing such facilities at music festivals has de facto been the norm in some European countries, including the Netherlands and Austria, for more than a decade. But amid more detailed research and increases in drug-related hospital admissions, supporters of drug tests are now also gaining momentum in Australia and New Zealand, where authorities have so far allowed only limited trials.
“I think they’re a fantastic idea and should be installed at all our festivals,” New Zealand Police Minister Stuart Nash told news site stuff.co.nz, even though he cautioned that authorities still need to “see how it works and better understand the implications of it first.”
“The war on drugs hasn’t worked in the past 20 years, so it’s time to change to a more compassionate and restorative approach,” Nash said.
Critics argue that the approach could encourage young people to take more drugs and that it sends the wrong message. On-site tests have also been criticized as inaccurate, given the sometimes limited availability of equipment.
But supporters of the tests maintain that their approach is far more effective than focusing on arrests. Pill testing “has been shown to change the black market” for the better and may even decrease overall drug consumption, as “negative results would deter a majority of people from consuming drugs and spur them to warn their friends,” according to a summary of arguments in favor of tests by Australia’s parliamentary library. Research by the Global Drug Survey came to a similar conclusion last year.
While police officers are not directly involved in those tests, authorities usually set up “tolerance areas” around testing tents, where consumers will not be arrested for drug use. Volunteers inside the tents use laboratory equipment to examine the substances in tests that take about half an hour on average using infrared light. The visual analysis can quickly reveal possible contamination or whether a drug consumer was sold a different drug.
In Britain, a study published last year in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 20 percent of all drugs sold at a randomly chosen 2016 festival contained substances other than the ones dealers had declared.
By anonymously revealing those findings to affected festivalgoers, researchers persuaded more than two-thirds of them to hand over other substances in their possession. Drug-related hospital admissions fell 95 percent compared with the previous year — a trend researchers said was largely associated with the on-site drug testing trial. In a separate experiment, researchers in Austria similarly noticed that tests raised awareness about the dangers of drug consumption.
The research results were published months after drug-related hospital admission rates soared in certain countries. Whereas British consumers of MDMA (popularly known as ecstasy) had a 0.7 percent chance of being admitted to a hospital after taking the drug in 2016, the rate had more than doubled by 2017, according to the 2018 Global Drug Survey.
Globally, more than two thirds of all MDMA consumers interviewed for the survey said they would likely have used drug testing facilities if they had been available.
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