“You can’t treat people for drug overdoses when they are dead”

(Ambulance Employees Australia general secretary Danny Hill: The Age, Jan 29th, 2019). 

As a doctor, I couldn’t agree more.

[Image: Hanging out at the DanzeWize tent at FOMO festival.]

At the latest count, there were 39 pill testing services operating within 20 different countries. Predominantly in Europe but also the United States and Canada. Evidence from these services consistently finds that pill testing not only reduces the risk of poisoning but also gives young people a chance to hear more about the risks in drug-taking and how to reduce them.

Very shortly, Victoria’s Ambulance Employees union are expected to announce their official support for pill testing. The Ambulance union was a key supporter of the medically supervised injection centre, and their support assisted in shifting the opinion of the Andrews Labor government.

The Ambulance union joins a growing list of those calling for pill testing, including, Royal Australian College of Physicians, The Australiasian College for Emergency Medicine, the Australian Medical Association, Harm Reduction Victoria, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and many more.

When we compare those who supported the safe injection centre, to those who support pill testing the Victorian Police are a glaring omission. And sadly, until the Victorian Police or their union join us in the twenty-first century, the Andrews Labor government will likely remain opposed to pill testing.

For the past 3 years, VicPol has based their objection to pill testing on the belief that “Illicit drug use is inherently unsafe. As well as being generally unhealthy, their production and sale is unregulated and their effects therefore unpredictable.” (Victoria Police Submission to the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee Inquiry into Drug Law Reform November 2017)

The irony here is not lost on me, as their view acutely explains why illegality makes drugs inherently unsafe, and also why pill testing makes more sense than “head in the sand” prohibition.

What’s even more concerning, is the recent development of over-policing at music festivals. We’ve seen this increase over the last few years in NSW, and now it looks to be ramping up in Victoria, with punters reporting an increased presence and intervention at the recent Rainbow Serpent festival. Anecdotal evidence suggests over-policing makes people less safe because out of fear of apprehension, people consume all their drugs at once.

[Image credit: Sniff Off Facebook page.]

One of the negatives about drug prohibition, when we see everything through a criminal justice lens, is that people who need care or treatment are often too suspicious to seek it out. And prohibition breeds crime. Ban anything desirable and you create an opportunity for organised crime. Legalise it and it disappears.

Intelligent nations are beginning to do just that. I remember watching on as Portugal lead the way on harm reduction, decriminalising all drugs in 2001. Since then, drug overdoses and overall drug-use have fallen, along with Hepatitis C, HIV infections and drug-related crime.

In 1986 some brave health workers set up Australia’s first needle exchange in Darlinghurst, in an effort to prevent HIV spreading among people injecting heroin. It was illegal at first, but after a few meetings, the police decided not to interfere. And it worked. Australia never had a drug-related HIV epidemic, unlike the US and Mediterranean countries, where HIV and Hepatitis C infections were common among drug injectors. The arguments for and against needle exchange programs mirror those against pill testing. And needle exchanges have saved hundreds of lives for over thirty years.

Australia has an opportunity to embrace harm reduction and there is so much we can do. We can start by addressing drug use as a public health issue, and not a crime. Today we start pill testing, tomorrow, legalisation of cannabis.

The Greens may be leading the drug reform conversation, but thankfully we are not alone. Many ex-police commissioners agree with us. It’s funny that those who were once tasked with selling out of date policies to the public become such outspoken advocates for the opposing view as soon as they have the ability to speak their mind. They’ve learned from experience, and as lawmakers, we should listen.

Next week the Victorian Greens will be fighting for pill testing in the Victorian Parliament, and we’ll be calling on the Andrews Labor government to implement a trial because you can’t call yourself progressive while maintaining the out-dated head in the sand prohibition laws that are harming young people.

[Image: #BeHeardNotHarmed supporters, Samantha Ratnam and myself on the steps of Parliament calling for action on pill testing.]