Pill-testing evidence ‘finally being heard’

5 minute read

Queensland has leapt into the 21st century with two decisions that take recreational drug use into the health space and out of the courts.

Two big moves in a week by the Queensland government in the harm minimisation space have drawn praise from AMA Queensland and the RACGP. 

Last Thursday the Paluszczuk government introduced amendments to Queensland Police powers which extend the range of people who will be referred to a drug diversion assessment program rather than the court system. Currently police have the power to divert people found with small quantities of cannabis; the new legislation will extend that power to other drugs and provide a tiered health response.  

But the bigger bombshell came on Saturday when Health Minister Yvette D’Ath announced that pill testing would be allowed for the first time in Queensland. 

“Evidence is being listened to, which is good news,” Dr Maria Boulton, president of AMA Queensland, told TMR

“This is a sensible step forward. 

“We’ve yet to hear the details about what the government has in mind in terms of methodology or whether these will be mobile or fixed sites, but we would encourage collaboration with the appropriate community groups and those with lived experience.” 

Dr Nicole Higgins, president of the RACGP, also welcomed the pill-testing news on behalf of the college, the first time it has actively endorsed the strategy. 

“It’s a reality that despite the risks and illegality, some people will keep taking illicit drugs,” she said. “We should not stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise; instead we should minimise the harm.  

“Pill testing saves lives, including [of] teenagers and other young people at events such as music festivals, and it’s also a fantastic way of engaging with those who are using drugs. Staff at these services can talk to them free of judgement about why they are using drugs and the issues in their lives that might be driving the drug use.  

“It can make all the difference and change long-term behaviours. 

“Every time festival season comes around, in particular, we learn of young people with their whole lives ahead of them dropping dead from overdoses.  

“It doesn’t need to be this way; we can look at what has worked overseas and, in the ACT, and save lives. From what has occurred in other jurisdictions, we know that many people who submit drugs for testing don’t take them when they find out what they actually contain.  

“Prevention is better than punitive action; a ‘war on drugs’ mindset gets us nowhere. I call on our nation’s leaders to follow the lead of the ACT and now Queensland and introduce fixed and mobile pill testing sites to save lives.” 

Evidence from Canberra’s trials of pill testing at music festivals had “left its opponents without a leg to stand on”, according to one advocate back in 2019.  

“These young people are not at all stupid, they are intelligent, they ask very bright questions, they want to engage,” Associate Professor David Caldicott told TMR after the second trial at the Groovin’ the Moo festival that year.  

“But they want to engage with a source of information they feel they can trust, and that chance has largely been squandered the past 20 years. We feel we’re re-engaging them on that. 

“People are quite happy to abandon their purchases if they’re advised what might happen to them if they don’t.” 

The most recent evidence, contained in the CanTEST progam evaluation report released in December, found that CanTEST Health and Drug Checking service, the first fixed site drug-testing service in Australia, was “delivering interventions to service users as planned and appears to be well received by service users”. 

“During the first three months of operation, CanTEST provided 81 hours of service, tested 232 samples, and delivered 376 health interventions to 191 service users. For most service users, it was their first interaction with a health care professional to discuss drug use (62%). Just under half of the drugs tested were not what service users thought it was,” the evaluation read. 

Ms D’Ath’s statement said the government was “developing protocols around the operation of testing, off the back of successful trials conducted at festivals and a fixed site in Canberra”. 

“In addition to developing the protocols, we will go out to market and identify a provider to trial pill testing at fixed and mobile locations,” she said. 

“It is important to note that pill testing services do not promote that drugs are safe; however, they are among a suite of options that can positively affect outcomes regarding illicit drug use.” 

Queensland mental health commissioner Ivan Frkovic said: 

“The most important part of drug checking is connection with a specialist alcohol and other drug worker for someone who already possesses a drug and intends to take it. 

“The intervention is intended to provide information, explain the risks of drug-taking, reduce serious harm, and facilitate access to treatment and support, where needed.” 

Dr Boulton said the move to expand the drug diversion program was one AMAQ had been recommending since 2021. 

“We convened a roundtable of experts from medicine, the law, law enforcement and the community and the consensus was our law needed to change. 

“Our focus has to be on helping people to stop their drug use, not seeing them end up in the criminal system. 

“We know that in countries like Portugal, diversion strategies have led to increases in people getting drug addiction treatment, a drop in drug-related deaths and fewer people in prison.” 

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