Not so groovin’ – Pill testing cancellation leaves young people at risk

In a shock development, days before the Groovin The Moo festival was due to host the third iteration of Pill Testing Australia’s (PTA) highly successful drug checking / ‘pill-testing’ service, insurers have backflipped and refused to cover the service, putting thousands of young people at risk from taking drugs of unknown composition. 

Australia’s first on-site pill-testing service was famously pioneered at the 2018 Groovin’ the Moo festival in Canberra. The trial was hailed as a resounding success with seven lives potentially being saved due to the detection of the toxic compound n-Ethylpentylone in samples presented by attendees. After the success of the 2018 pilot, organisers planned to expand the service for the 2022 edition with more peer support staff employed, and a team of chemists from the ANU operating a high-tech FTIR Spectroscopy machine for testing drugs.   

The eleventh-hour cancellation of pill-testing services is a devastating blow to harm reduction initiatives in Canberra and throughout Australia. The pill-testing services proposed by PTA and hosted by Groovin in the Moo had received support from the ACT Government, the Australian Federal Police and festival organisers many months earlier.  

Harm reduction is an evidence-based approach aimed at reducing health risks associated with drug use, and is one of the three pillars of the Australia’s National Drug Strategy. Drug checking or ‘pill testing’ services aim to identify what is contained in a drug before someone takes it and supply information that may stop the person from taking the drug, or reduce the harm that drug will cause if the person decides to consume it. Drug checking services are not a new proposition, with several countries within Europe running their own iterations of a drug checking / pill testing service. Some programs, such as the Netherland’s program: DIMS (The Drugs Monitoring and Information System) have been testing compounds for users for over two decades.  

In recent years, the ACT Government has been at the forefront of pioneering harm reduction services in Australia, in partnership with harm reduction services and advocates such as CAHMA and PTA. These services have strong community backing, as Canberran’s appreciate the need to keep the harms of drug use to a minimum.  Unfortunately, in this case the risk to the insurers appears to have trumped the health and well-being of young Canberrans hoping to use the pill-testing service. 

CAHMA asks that the ACT Government steps in to open dialogue with private insurers and provide clarity about Canberran’s expectations of our insurance industry in the ACT. This must happen swiftly, as the current stance by insurers leaves it uncertain as to how such programs can hope to operate in the future. It must be made clear that pill testing services do reduce harm, and do not increase liability for insurers. We cannot allow the risk of people dying at festivals to be outweighed by the falsely perceived risk of insuring such a service, one which has proven to be so valuable in saving lives across the globe. 

Written by Mitch Lamb

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