By Alison Ritter
Drug checking (or ‘pill‐testing’ as it has been referred to in Australia and as a result is the term used herein) is a harm reduction intervention aimed at providing information to people intending to consume drugs, regarding the contents of their drugs, and providing information to reduce the potential harms from drug consumption. While most of the public focus has been on pill‐testing at music festivals, there are many models of pill‐testing available. This includes fixed sites in central locations (such as at transport hubs, or in community centres providing other health‐care check‐ups and support services), pop‐ups at festivals and music events, postal services and in clubs. Mostly, they target people who use drugs recreationally, although more recently the appearance of fentanyl in the USA and Canada has prompted calls to expand pill‐testing to include testing opioids in street‐based drug markets.
There has been an exponential increase in the number of pill‐testing services across developed nations in the last 5 years. Research evidence on its feasibility and effects has been widely documented. It appears to be a highly acceptable intervention amongst Australian festival goers. Australia is a federated nation, with drug policy implementation occurring largely at state level. Two pilots of pill‐testing have been successfully undertaken in one Australian jurisdiction, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
Despite these successful pilots, pill‐testing has remained a highly controversial harm reduction intervention in Australia, and particularly in one state, New South Wales (NSW). The public debate in NSW has not resulted in policy change thus far, with the current conservative NSW government unwilling to trial pill‐testing at time of writing. This is despite an environment in the last 18 months theoretically conducive to policy change, including a state election, high levels of advocacy for pill‐testing, a window of opportunity created as a result of the summer festival season in NSW, and the focussing events of deaths at festivals. In this paper, I explore ways to understand the nature of the debate, with a view to looking for new accommodations and ways of conducting a more productive and less divisive policy debate.