What Exactly Happened With Aussie Fest Spilt Milk's Failed Pill Testing Trial?

24 November 2017 | 1:36 pm | Jessica Dale

"Obviously if it works, it works. If it doesn't, then you can try the next thing but we fail by not trying to change the status quo."

The recent announcement and subsequent cancellation of a pill testing trial at Canberra's Spilt Milk Festival has reignited the debate. Jessica Dale takes a look at the issue.

"I'm gonna overdose on purpose so they blame no pill testing."

Those are the words of a young man on the Spilt Milk Festival Facebook page just ten minutes after it was announced a pill testing trial would not be taking place at their November event.

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In the past few months, the topic of pill testing has once again been thrust into the spotlight, with ACT Minister for Health and Wellbeing Meegan Fitzharris announcing on 22 September that a pill testing service would be available at Canberran festival.

"In a progressive move the ACT Government announced it will allow Safety Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-Safe) to conduct pill testing as a key harm minimisation strategy at Spilt Milk on 25 November," shared Kicks Entertainment, the promoters behind the event. "Kicks strongly supports harm minimisation initiatives with proven results such as medically supervised pill testing. This measure has a demonstrated history of success internationally and Kicks applauds the ACT Government for allowing this measure to be introduced at Spilt Milk."

What followed just under three weeks later would be somewhat of a blindside; the trial was abruptly pulled through an announcement from Kicks Entertainment director Ryan Phillips on triple j's Hack program. Phillips credited the cancellation to STA-Safe, saying they had not provided the documentation needed for the trial to go ahead.

"It comes down to STA-Safe. They need more time to provide documentation, insurance, legal framework to operate on federal land," he told the program on 12 October.

Many were caught off guard by the announcement, none more so than Dr David Caldicott. Dr Caldicott is an emergency room doctor, a senior lecturer and professor at some of Canberra's best universities. He's also been conducting pill testing at music events since the early 2000s and has fast become the spokesperson for STA-Safe. Dr Caldicott and STA-Safe were quick to refute Phillips' claims, sharing with Hack that as far as he knew, all necessary documentation had been provided.

In the time since, Spilt Milk are yet to share further comment beside a statement posted to their Facebook page which begins with "It is a tough day when something you have advocated for so strongly can't quite make it over the line."

When speaking with The Music, it's apparent that Dr Caldicott is disappointed. Yes, for the two years of work and effort that went into getting the trial underway, but almost entirely for the fact that the testing option had been promised to festival-goers and then taken away.

"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. 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]," Dr Caldicott explains.

"There is still, in Australia, very much a prohibition bent towards drugs. For whatever reason, we're still hanging onto the cold, dead claw of Nancy Reagan in that space. 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."

Dr Caldicott maintains that everything that could have been done from their end for the trial was. There is one main factor that he believes to be behind the cancellation of the trial - a meeting between the Spilt Milk promoters and the National Capital Authority on 11 October.

Within the ACT there are plots of land and attractions that are governed and run under federal control rather than local jurisdiction. It's here that the NCA steps in, caring for landmarks like Canberra's ANZAC Parade, Federation Mall, Lake Burley Griffin and Commonwealth Park; the venue in which Spilt Milk is set to take place.

"I think on the week of the 10th of October, there was a big meeting, I think on Wednesday the 11th between the promoter and the National Capital Authority and at that meeting, we've been led to believe that the National Capital Authority advised the promoter that they would not get a licence to conduct Spilt Milk with an application of pill testing," says Dr Caldicott.

"We had provided all of the documentation that was required, not just for the ACT government to persuade them but also the Australian Federal Police, so the documentation that we had provided to everybody was extensive. The promoter was involved in all of the planning phases and therefore had access to all of the documentation, and then on the Thursday announced on radio, without consulting with us, that he didn't have all the documentation he needed, so we didn't know anything about it."

When approached by The Music for comment on the issue, Kicks Entertainment referred only to the statement on the Spilt Milk Facebook page. The National Capital Authority were also contacted but failed to respond.

While it still remains unclear who exactly pulled the plug on the testing, there are several additional points to consider. The National Capital Authority chairman Terry Weber told the ABC when the cancellation was announced "that it was his understanding Mr Phillips decided not to go ahead with pill testing at the festival" and "the authority played no part in the decision to shelve the pill testing trial." There are also the comments from the ACT Shadow Minister for Health, Vicki Dunne, at the ACT's Legislative Assembly in August. "Pill testing will need Commonwealth government approval, and I doubt that they will give it. Ms Fitzharris can feel free to blame the Commonwealth whilst being silently thankful that she did not have to deliver on pill testing."

Regardless of how the conclusion was reached, there's one overarching topic that remains consistent: people, particularly in a festival environment, will still continue their use of illicit drugs.

One person who knows better than most about this environment is Richie McNeill, director of Hardware Corporation. McNeill is a co-founder of Stereosonic and has been a key figure in the Australian dance music scene throughout his 25-year plus career.

"With pill testing, I am for it definitely, however it's a delicate process and I think if it was to happen, as I've said in the past, it needs the support of the venues, the security, the police, the first aid, the ambulance, the state," McNeill explains. "It needs to be a collective way forward like the discussion to give it a trial. Obviously if it works, it works. It doesn't, then you can try the next thing but we fail by not trying to change the status quo."

While he is in support of pill testing, McNeill also suggests alternate strategies closer to the model exhibited in Amsterdam, where photos of drugs that have tested negatively are displayed at festivals.

"If it comes in, then I would strongly support all people having their pills tested whether their mate got theirs tested or not," says McNeill. "I think that's one of the problems in the past. There's been a test and it's been okay and people have posted things on Bluelight or these kind of websites saying these pills are bad or these ones are ok, but these ones are ok in this particular batch. But there's five other batches out there made in different countries or whatever else. And I think that's the problem, is the information and how it's used. It just needs to be 'this pill is bad' and no mention of if this one's ok and no publishing about it."

While it's a debate that will surely continue for a long time from both sides of the fence, Dr Caldicott's final point is probably a good summation of the youth vote on the issue, referring to the politicians he believes blocked the trial at this point.

"This is a brilliant way of completely distancing yourself from an entire demographic of parents and young people, because it looks ridiculous and it looks foolish and it looks aged."

Caps Off

There's roughly 20 countries in the world supporting pill testing. Here's who's nailing it:

The Netherlands
The Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) has been running since 1992. Testing has been approved at a national level and information found during tests is used for scientific purposes in addition to harm minimisation.
In 2001, Portugal made a call to decriminalise illicit drugs for personal use. Funding is now put into their healthcare system and in 2015 the country reported only three deaths by overdoses per million compared to an EU average of 17.3.
While the country hasn’t legalised use, there has been local and police support for pill testing at events since 1995.