Why Pill Testing Was The Best Medicine For Australia

It’s about reducing harm that comes to our kids.

For the first time in Australian history, we have done pill testing at a music festival.

In late April Ted Noffs Foundation, Harm Reduction Australia, The Drug Observatory, DanceWize Victoria and Students for Sensible Drug Policy held the first official pill testing service at Groovin’ The Moo Canberra.

This was the culmination of years of work by a consortium of harm reduction advocates of which we are a part, and has shifted the conversation around reducing drug-related harms in a direction that is not new, but is much needed in this country.

This initiative is part of a wider goal to foster understanding in the community about the realities of drug use and addiction, particularly how the two don’t always correlate and why they are more relevant to all of us than we might think.

But most importantly, it’s about reducing harm that comes to our kids.

Image: Getty.

The pill testing service was accessed by 128 people and the feedback we got was that they were appreciative of us being there and hoped similar services would eventually be rolled out.

Many of those who used the service had lots of questions. We took the opportunity to inform them about the risks associated with drug use and the steps they can take to reduce harm to themselves and their friends, and how pill testing can be part of that. Again, this was met with positive and grateful feedback which indicates to us that there is a real need for this service.

Our priority has always been the health and safety of young people, and that is why implementing pill testing is so important. A lot of the young people who used the service probably come from a background that is quite different to our clients at the Noffs Foundation -- crucially, most of them are unlikely to have issues with substance dependency -- but we believe criminalising them for what is ultimately part of the experimentation of youth can ruin their lives and potential as much as it does the young people we work with.

Too often, drugs and drug use are conflated with criminality, and this perception has long been at the expense of the people who are affected, whether they are a young student out with their friends on the weekend, or at risk, disadvantaged, and/or self-medicating to escape past trauma. Their stories are crucial to reshaping societal perceptions about drugs, the people that use them, and why.

This is how we build the safest Australia possible when it comes to drugs. The government needs to face the fact that what they have been doing hasn’t worked.

We know, without a doubt that prohibition doesn’t work and never has. Drug policy should be having more control -- it’s about making a healthier country. It’s about moving beyond the dominant narrative we’ve been told -- that drugs are evil, drug dependency is a brain disorder, that punishment is an effective deterrent-- and seeing these issues in a pragmatic, yet compassionate light.

Pill testing was a huge step forward for Australia. The question is, what next?

We need to speak to those police and pollies who want to see change. We need to leave the dogma and discrimination of those who use drugs behind. After all, not every person who uses drugs is shooting up in a back alley.

And for those who are shooting up in a back alley somewhere -- we need to offer compassion and treatment. We need to be offering decent help -- evidence-based help that will allow them to regain control of their life.

"For those who are shooting up in a back alley somewhere -- we need to offer compassion and treatment." Image: Getty.

The government feels it can score political points based on mocking those who are addicted to drugs but their messages to the community belies what’s really happening. Unlike kids at music festivals who will use ecstasy every so often, someone who is addicted to ice or heroin is addicted because life has hurt them and often tragically.

Many of the young people we see in our rehabilitation centres and Street Universities have grown up in poverty. Or worse, they have grown up being abused by those who were meant to be the ones protecting them.

If you or I had been abused since the age of four, been forced to do sex work from the age of eight and been introduced to ice at the age of 10 -- I’m sure we’d also be addicted to ice at age 13 or 14.

It’s time for a new perspective on drugs, on addiction and on how we manage drugs as a country. We know how to make Australia the safest place on the planet when it comes to drugs and young people. It’s time to leave the past behind and get on board with pill testing and evidence-based treatment.

The future health of Australia depends on it. We build a healthier and wealthier nation when our money isn’t being poured into jails and into fighting unnecessary physical and mental health problems. We save lives.

When we invest in evidence, in ideas that work, like pill testing, we change the game and the landscape of our country. We reduce harm and we may also save lives.

Remember this: when our kids suffer, the future of Australia will suffer, too.

Co-authored with Shelley Smith.

Addicted? By Matt Noffs and Kieran Palmer is in bookstores now and is published by HarperCollins, RRP $29.95. 

Matt Noffs blogs at noffs.org.au/blog