A policy report released by Victoria Greens has made the case that a pill testing service could begin in Victoria under existing legislation.
Declared testing facilities
The report points to a little-known section in the Drugs Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 (Vic) (‘The Act’) which authorises certain individuals and testing facilities to handle drugs of dependence.
Section 13(1) lists a number of these individuals, such as medical professionals or law enforcement officers, and subsection (baa) authorises “any person employed or engaged by a declared testing facility” to possess a drug of dependence “to the extent that the possession is required for the purpose for which the drug of dependence .… has been supplied to the facility”. Authority to nominate approved testing facilities is given to the Chief Commissioner of Police under s 97. Section 98 lists the reasons for authorisation of a testing facility as ‘substance profiling’, ‘analytical testing’ and ‘research’.
The authors observe that 'the legislation seemingly provides for the authorisation of pill-testing facilities, whether for the purposes of on-site testing or market monitoring.'
Problems with sniffer dogs
The report also outlines current policies and their weaknesses, and offers twelve recommendations about how alternative policies could operate in Victoria. The report argues that the sniffer dog program, or what are called Passive Alert Detection (PAD) dogs in Victoria, is counterproductive to the objective of reducing drug-related harm. Concerns raised about the PAD program are as follows:
There is a high rate of false positives, and a significantly low rate of prosecution, particularly at music festivals. In NSW in 2014, only 2.24% of 17,800 searches led to successful prosecution.
Deterrence of drug use appears minimal. Only 4% of festival patrons reported they disposed of illegal drugs due to the presence of PAD dogs. Nearly five times that number (19%) consumed all their drugs before entering the festival to avoid detection.
Risk of overdose is increased. For instance, 23-year-old James Munroe, who died at the 2013 Sydney Defqon.1 festival, reportedly panicked and consumed all his drugs upon being alerted to the PAD dogs.
The report recommends two further approaches in addition to on-site pill testing:
Monitoring the drug market to establish early public warning systems. Data could be shared with healthcare professionals and other sectors. The Drugs Information & Monitoring System (DIMS) used in the Netherlands has proved effective at instigating behaviour change among both users and dealers. For example, the dangerous substance PMA (Paramethoxyamphetamine) eventually fell out of circulation following public campaigns and websites that spread warnings about the pills containing PMA. The report quotes Dr George Braitberg, Director of Emergency Medicine and Professor of Toxicology at Royal Melbourne Hospital, describing the need for ‘toxico-surveillance’, which allows for the heath sector to both prepare for the season ahead by knowing what substances it will likely encounter, as well as assist with diagnosis and treatment of users presenting at first aid tents or emergency rooms
Data-sharing: Currently, the Victorian police are not obliged to share toxicological or forensic data collected from police work. Clearly, open access to these data could inform future policy reforms. Having this information available would help establish an effective monitoring system while also equipping health sectors with valuable information on dangerous substances.
The report also engages with moral arguments for and against pill testing, including a long-standing argument that such measures condone or even encourage illicit drug use. Recent studies, however, show that the effect of pill testing on overall drug consumption rates are neutral, therefore are found not to promote drug use. The report also stresses that in liberal democracies, legislation is designed to protect people, not to impose moral judgement. Policy changes should reflect these principles.
The official Australian drug policy strategy is guided by three pillars: demand reduction, supply reduction, and harm reduction. The authors argue that current policies disproportionately focus on the supply reduction approach namely through prohibition and punishment, with the goal of reducing demand through deterrence. Current policies incur significant expenditure with relatively low returns. The threat of punishment also fails to discourage the use of illicit substances. The introduction of new policies based on evidence and compassion rather than speculation and punishment would be a welcome change.