3rd May 2016
Festival season may seem like a distant, glittering mirage on the other side of winter, but pill testing advocate Dr David Caldicott already has big plans. The senior ANU medical lecturer has revealed he’s in talks with police and politicians around Australia, and will be introducing pill-testing trials at Australian music festivals within the next year.
Dr Caldicott tells VICE in an ideal situation pill testing will soon become “politically palatable” enough that a state or territory government will step forward to support a trial at a music festival, and there would be an amnesty with law enforcement. Research in Europe has shown that this is the most effective approach. “This is such a mundane thing now in Europe they actually have best practice guidelines,” he says. “It’s not as though we are inventing something really naughty.”
And, as Caldicott explains, it’s not as though there’s no precedent for police turning a blind eye to drug use in the name of harm minimisation. “It’s not like there are police standing outside of Kings Cross [Medically Supervised Injecting Centre] arresting people,” he says. “But right now there’s nothing to stop the police surrounding our tent and arresting everyone who approaches.”
New South Wales—where most of the recent festival overdoses have happened—seems to be the jurisdiction that’s least likely to budge on pill testing. Dr Caldicott says while other jurisdictions have been open to discussing the potential of a trial, NSW remains resolutely against it, particularly the state’s deputy premier Troy Grant.
“It’s everybody’s individual responsibility not to take drugs and put a gun in their mouth or play Russian roulette with God knows what they are going to ingest,” Grant said after the hospitalisation of a 23-year-old woman at the Field Day festival.
This abstinence approach was echoed by NSW Premier Mike Baird, who told Sunrise earlier this year: “Don’t do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine.”
However, Dr Caldicott says this is an extremely outdated approach that’s as practical as trying to get young people to abstain from sex before marriage. “We’re kind of like the condoms of the harm reduction world. We’re trying to keep people safe,” he explains.
When VICE asked police around the country for their stance on pill testing, none would go on the record whether they would support a trial. South Australia Police said they would not be able to comment on the matter but did “urge the community to remember the significant risks posed by taking illicit drugs” and directed anyone with information about drug dealing to contact CrimeStoppers.
Victoria Police provided a more extensive statement to VICE, outlining its concerns around the limitations of pill-testing. Obviously, the legal side of things could be tricky for the police. As a police spokesperson explained if a trial were to go ahead, the substances being tested would still be illicit.
“There is currently limited data on the effectiveness of pill testing in Australia,” the spokesperson added. “Whilst testing may be able to indicate the possible presence of a class of drug, it may be unable to provide clear identification of a particular drug, or information on drug purity, toxicity, or other components present in the sample.”
Dr Caldicott says that’s actually factually incorrect. The technology he intends to use isn’t your run-of-the-mill reagent test (sales of which have gone up by 1000 percent over the last few years). They will be able to give festivalgoers a good understanding of the pill’s active ingredient and, if the sample is large enough, “you can quite clearly get the idea of how strong a tablet is.”
Consumer reagent tests. Image via
There’s been a lot of discussion around whether Caldicott and his fellow pill testing advocates, such as Dr Alex Wodak who spoke to VICE back in March, could be jailed if their went ahead with a trial. Caldicott says this isn’t a concern. Any drugs being tested will be only handled by a forensic scientist, who is licensed to handle these substances.
During the 20-30 minutes it will take to test the drugs, doctors will be present to talk to people about their drug use: To ensure they aren’t taking other medication that could cause an adverse reaction, to give them information about the dangers of taking more than one pill. “What we’re seeing in Europe is pills that are 200-300mG of pure MDMA going through the market,” Dr Caldicott explains. “Double drop with that and you’re getting very close to a lethal dose.”
Ultimately, as an emergency room physician, Dr Caldicott sees this as a case of taking the approach that stops people dying. He believes police outside NSW are increasingly seeing pill testing as a practical step that will provide more information about what new drugs are flowing into the market; political opposition is just the last vestiges of the war on drugs.
“The Australian Medical Association called for a pilot pill testing back in November 2005. This has been on the books for a decade,” Dr Caldicott says. “How long will this go on for? How many people need to be sacrificed on the altar of some ideology?”