Preventable Tragedies. It’s Time for Pill Testing in Australia

The recent deaths of 2 young men who attended Knockout Outdoor Festival in New South Wales have reignited calls for pill testing in Australia. These deaths, suspected to be linked to MDMA use, follow at least ten other drug-related deaths at festivals in NSW since 2021.

Jen Ross-King, the mother of Alex, another young woman who lost her life at a festival in NSW in 2019, has begged the government to introduce pill testing - a service that could possibly have saved her daughter's life and the lives of many others. Her voice adds to the chorus of mothers like Adriana Buccianti, who lost her son, Daniel, at the Rainbow Serpent Festival 10 years ago also calling for pill testing at festivals.

Australia continues to reject calls for pill testing. How many more need to be lost?

Why pill testing?

This tragic loss of young lives is preventable. Pill testing allows people to test their drugs before taking them so they can be better informed about the risks. 

Pill testing is a well-established harm reduction policy around the globe. The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the UK, and Belgium have all provided pill testing services for over 20 years. Canada recently adopted pill testing in 2019, and we have even adopted it on our own shores in Canberra. There is now an undeniable body of evidence that shows that pill testing services at festivals and fixed sites drastically reduce drug-related harm. 

Drugs purchased on the black market are often dangerous and contain deadly contaminants. Pill testing can identify potentially lethal substances in drugs as well as their purity to help identify a safer dose.

The recent pill testing trials in Canberra have shown just how dangerous these drugs can be. One in five substances tested at Groovin the Moo contained the dangerous synthetic cathinone N-Ethylpentylone, a substance linked to several mass-casualty overdoses overseas. It’s no surprise that when most people found out their drugs were dangerous, they threw them away. 

We can’t prevent people from taking drugs, but we can save them from taking deadly ones. 

Pill testing can also provide information about the purity of substances, allowing individuals to dose their drugs correctly. Unknown pills can be double or triple in strength and can kill if taken. Pill testing results show that people often reduce their doses if their drugs are found to be too strong, massively reducing their risk of harm. 

But it’s not just about testing drugs. Pill testing services can also act as a way to engage with marginalised individuals who may be cautious of traditional healthcare settings. Staff at pill testing services provide a safe, judgement-free environment to connect with consumers, and help them connect with further treatment or medical care. Testing staff can provide advice to festival goers about safer dosages, mixing drugs, staying hydrated, looking after intoxicated friends, and other safety measures.

Many people are against pill testing based on the belief that it encourages drug use. But the evidence points to the contrary. Studies on pill testing services in Europe have failed to find any evidence that pill testing encourages drug use. In fact, pill testing may actually deter drug use; when people learn that their drugs are dangerous, they are less likely to take them. 

Taking a prohibitionist stance against drugs actively endangers people's lives and encourages risk-taking behaviour. If young people see drug sniffing dogs at the entrance of a festival, they are more likely to consume their drugs all at once to avoid detection, putting their lives at risk. Pill testing allows people to make smarter and safer decisions. Pill testing saves lives.

Time for pill testing in Australia

Allowing pill testing services at music festivals and events is a crucial harm reduction strategy. The reality is that people will use drugs despite prohibition. Pill testing gives them access to science-based information to make informed choices and stay safer. It starts a conversation to better educate people on risks of drug use. 

Shutting down pill testing shuts down that conversation.

Pill testing is supported by various health experts, including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association and the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association. Canberra has successfully implemented it and now Queensland has plans to follow suit. 

Despite the mounting evidence, the majority of state governments remain staunchly against pill testing. In Victoria, the Coroners Court has called for drug-checking services following the 2021 inquest into drug-related deaths, which have been ignored. Seventy-seven representatives from the Victorian health and community sector, including Uniting and the Youth Affairs Council, have desperately pleaded for the Victorian government to implement the Coroner's recommendations. These same recommendations made by the NSW Coroner in 2019 were also ignored.

If the government had listened, how many lives could have been saved?

It's time for Australia to stop making this a moral issue. The debate is not about condoning drug use. It's about adopting practical, realistic policies guided by evidence to reduce harm among people who use drugs. Politicians have a duty to support measures proven to save lives like pill testing. The community expects leadership guided by evidence, not knee-jerk reactions, hopes and prayers. Evaluate the overseas data. Talk to health experts. Then show leadership by implementing pill testing at music festivals.

Young lives depend on it.

Recent responses

Get Involved and Join the Movement