Triple J's Hack Program Dispels Politician's Claims That Testing Encourages Drug Use

19 July 2018 | 4:22 pm | Staff Writer

"Mr Hanson’s claim doesn’t check out."

The meticulous ABC Fact Checking team at RMIT have today dispelled recent claims that pill testing at festivals encourages drug use. 

Australia’s first official pill testing took place earlier in the year at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival. On the day, 128 punters took part in the trial, 85 samples were tested and of that, 50% was found to be pure MDMA, while two samples were deadly.

A report on the testing facility concluded the trial as an "overwhelming success", however it still remains deeply controversial in the eyes of politicians.

The report, delivered by the Safety Testing Advisory Service At Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) Consortium, recommended further front-of-house pill testing in the ACT, that testing be considered nation-wide and that "the federal government take a national leadership role in advancing a mixed-model approach to pill testing as a harm reduction service across Australia".

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However taking the direct opposite approach, Shadow Attorney-General of the ACT, Jeremy Hanson, took to radio station 2GB to claim, "The reality is that if you send a message out there to young people… that the drugs that they’re taking are safe I think that’s going to encourage their use and you’re gonna see more people taking drugs."

“What we’re seeing from evidence overseas, places like the UK where they have pill testing, what happens is more people take drugs and more people die as a consequence.”

In a world of #fakenews, ABC Fact Check Researchers at RMIT took note of the politician’s comments and took the time to delve deep into the literature and have just released their findings.

Researcher Claudia Long conducted a literature review to see if pill testing did indeed correlate with drug-related deaths and to put it simply, she concluded that "Mr Hanson’s claim doesn’t check out".

Rather on the contrary, Long found that “there is evidence to suggest that pill testing can make some users more likely to dispose of their drugs or take smaller quantities of them.”

Considering this, many academics and professionals were also left dumbfounded by the residual controversy surrounding pill testing, particularly concerning the cancellation of the planned event at Spilt Milk festival last year.

The Music spoke to emergency room doctor, senior lecturer, professor and spokesperson for STA-Safe, Dr David Caldicott, after news of the cancellation last year and his comments then are directly in line with Long’s findings now.

"I think that the issue really, and I think part of the problem with the people who disagree with us, is that they actually don't understand an entire generation," he explained.

"People don't consume drugs not caring if they get hurt. The very fact that they're testing their drugs means that they very much care if they're going to get hurt or not, and we find the model of taking a doctor who knows an awful lot about illicit drugs and sitting someone down and saying, 'Look, buddy, this is what we think is going on and we really think you're better off not taking this particular drug' [does work]."

In Long’s literature review, she found that, "In the UK, two thirds of users said they would not take drugs found to have harmful substances and more than half said test results had affected their consumption choices."

While noting that there is a significant research gap concerning pill testing, she also found "a report from Switzerland’s Research Institute For Public Health & Addiction concluded that a drug checking service combined with a consultation session does not, as some would claim, encourage consumption."

So if the literature is saying one thing, why are politicians still spurting a different rhetoric?

"There is still, in Australia, very much a prohibition bent towards drugs," Dr Caldicott speculated.

"The reality is, and my argument has always been, the reason that so many drugs are illegal is because they're dangerous for your health and health takes supremacy.

"Health is what is the most important thing and so we should be not telling young people that they're naughty or that they're evil or that they're wrong to use drugs, just that they could get really hurt."