Vic's implementation trial for pill testing welcomed

Tuesday, 25 June, 2024

Vic's implementation trial for pill testing welcomed

Victoria has launched an implementation trial for pill testing, following a rise in drug-related emergency department admissions and overdose deaths.

The global drug market is ramping up the production of illicit deadly synthetic substances with increased potency, like Fentanyl and Nitazenes, said the Office of the Premier in a statement. Paramedics in the state responded to more drug overdoses at festivals in the first three months of this year compared to all of last year.

Premier Jacinta Allan and Minister for Mental Health Ingrid Stitt said the trial will run for up to 18 months and include mobile and fixed site services.

“It’s an implementation trial — not a trial for whether the service should exist long-term. It’s about testing different models of delivery for an important health service that eventually will be in place permanently,” the statement said.

The drug checking technology available at these services will be able to test the make-up of most pills, capsules, powders, crystals or liquids and identify harmful chemicals that can lead to death.

Trained peer workers and technical experts will be present during testing to provide personalised and confidential health information to help people make better, safer and more informed decisions.

Amendments to the Act

Amendments to the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 will allow the trial to be introduced along with protections for the services, for their staff and for their clients — so nobody is breaking the law by operating or using the testing service.

The possession and supply of illicit drugs will not be decriminalised outside the service. Police powers outside the drug checking service will remain the same.

Just like in other Australian jurisdictions, Victoria will consult with police and other authorities to establish a fair and feasible arrangement that doesn’t deter people from using the service — and will ensure relevant guidelines and policies are clearly communicated before the trial starts.

“No one using the service in Victoria will ever be told a drug is safe to consume. They’ll simply be told what’s in the drug and have a conversation with an expert about the consequences and choices they face.

These conversations are the first step to reducing harm. Most clients using pill testing services in the ACT had never previously discussed drug use with a professional. 90% said they would share the information with peers.

Reducing pressure on frontline services

While the trial seeks to save lives, reduce drug harm and improve public health at music festivals, it also aims to reduce pressure on frontline services and enhance Victoria’s drug surveillance capabilities.

Pill testing offers real-time surveillance — turbocharging our existing surveillance programs and boosting early detection and rapid assessment of new synthetic drugs hitting our streets.

The Department of Health will also work with agencies and major events to develop a Safer Music Festivals Framework, helping organisers and providers understand their roles and responsibilities in keeping patrons safe.

The trial is just one of the health-led drug harm initiatives being delivered by the Labor government, with the state’s multi-year $95 million Statewide Action Plan to reduce opiate drug deaths and harm now underway.

Need for open, health-focused conversations

Victorian Minister for Mental Health Ingrid Stitt said, “Honest, open, health-focused conversations and advice is how we reduce drug harm and help people make safer, more informed decisions.

“No drug is safe, but if people choose to take them, they deserve to know what’s in it and have the experts tell them how to stay safer — and that’s what this trial is all about.”

Premier Jacinta Allan said, “This is about saving lives.

“Soon enough my own kids will be heading off to music festivals and parties with their mates, and like all parents, sometimes I catch myself thinking… what if the worst happens? What if they don’t come home?

“I don’t condone drugs, but if a young person gets handed a pill at a festival, they need someone to tell them exactly what it is and exactly what it does, without telling them that it’s safe.”

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Will other states and territories follow suit?

Associate Professor Shalini Arunogiri, Acting Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point and Associate Professor at Monash Addiction Research Centre, said, “It is fantastic to see the Victorian Government pursuing an evidence-based health response that will help keep people safe and prevent harm.

“A genuine commitment to harm reduction and saving lives requires us to do things differently and this announcement does precisely that.

“Drug checking has been effective at reducing illicit drug harms for decades globally and repeated polls show it’s an approach supported by a majority of Australians.

“It acts as an early warning system for novel or contaminated substances, and there’s a consistent body of evidence that it often results in people discarding their drugs.”

RACGP Victoria Chair Dr Anita Munoz said, “This is a victory for common sense and sound policy over tired rhetoric and a ‘war-on-drugs’ mentality that gets us nowhere. Alcohol and other drug use, whether it be illicit drug use at music festivals or people experiencing severe opioid dependence on drugs such as heroin, is a health issue.

“Earlier this year, we called on the Victorian Government to heed coronial recommendations to trial a drug testing service. The government has not only listened to the College, and a host of other groups, but acted decisively to introduce mobile and fixed sites. It’s such a fantastic outcome. Drug testing is not about condoning illicit drug use, rather it’s a sensible harm reduction measure. There is no use pretending that people don’t use illicit drugs, it is a reality of life. So, let’s focus on minimising harm and keeping people as safe as possible.”

Dr Marguerite Tracy, RACGP Addiction Medicine spokesperson, called for other states and territories to follow suit. “In March this year, we welcomed Queensland becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to institute an ongoing drug testing or ‘pill testing’ service. The ACT has also successfully conducted drug testing at events such as music festivals and now has a fixed pill testing site. So, it is time for other states and territories to follow suit.”

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