An inner city council wants to run Victoria’s first pill testing at music festivals as a powerful group of state MPs pushes for a trial and builds pressure on the Andrews Government.
The City of Port Phillip is pushing to host Victoria’s first trial after the drug overdose deaths of six young people at festivals across Australia in the past five months.
The council’s proposal has been bolstered by news that a united front of crossbench MPs will on Monday demand the government give pill testing the go-ahead. Port Phillip Mayor Dick Gross said his municipality was the ideal place for a trial because of the crowds drawn to places such as St Kilda for entertainment and music festivals.
But pill testing has been criticised as sending the wrong message on drug use, including by victims’ families.
“Despite continuing illicit drug-related deaths and harm, the Victorian government is not budging on its refusal to try something different to help stop this heartbreaking loss of young lives,” Cr Gross said.
Cong Pham, whose son Joseph, 23, died at a Sydney festival in September, says the answer is to ban such events.
“Crowd control doesn’t work, pill testing doesn’t work — none of these measures tackle the root of the problem,” he said last week. “I don’t want to read about another death at a festival … the only way to prevent deaths at festivals is to ban the hard-core ones.”
Reason Party MP Fiona Patten is leading a push among crossbench MPs in the Upper House to persuade the government to change its mind.
“Pill testing will save lives and there is evidence of this across the world,” she said.
“To the Premier, if you call Victoria the most progressive state, you can’t ignore pill testing. Health professionals are simply waiting for you to give the go-ahead.”
She is backed by Upper House MPs including Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, independent Catherine Cumming and Liberal Democrats David Limbrick and Tim Quilty. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party MP Stuart Grimley said the party’s two MPs were “open to the idea”.
However, he said he would not commit to a trial without further research because there were still questions about the nature of a pilot program.
“Anything that saves the lives of kids we are of course open to discussing,” he said.
Some Labor MPs are concerned that pill testing won’t test for all reactions to dangerous drugs. A trial, they argue, could lead to a false sense of security about the “safety” of drugs that could affect different people in different ways.
Mr Gross welcomed the “commonsense” stance of the crossbench MPs, and acknowledged the best way to minimise harm was to not take drugs.
“However, just like many public health initiatives such as needle exchanges, which initially attracted strong criticism, pill testing at venues such as music festivals could help save many lives, in this case by flagging potentially deadly contaminants,” he said.
After the death of a 20-year old Victorian man this month, acting Premier Tim Pallas said the government had no plans to allow pill testing.
But critics say pill testing was not always accurate and could not test for new designer drugs such as N-Bomb, which claimed the lives of three people in Melbourne in 2017.
And it could also give a false sense of security that the drugs they buy might be safe.