The issues of pill testing and the damage recreational drugs can do to young bodies have been bubbling away since glow sticks and whistles first appeared at parties. And while policies haven’t changed, a growing number of credible, articulate voices have entered the debate.

When two young people — a man and a woman — died after the recent Defcon.1 festival in west Sydney, NSW Premier Berejiklian’s response was both swift and divisive. The state leader immediately spoke of shutting down the event for good, shot-down the argument for pill testing at festivals, and drew up a “high level expert panel” which would provide advice on how to keep festival-goers safe and drug taking at places where people gather.

The panel, however, did not offer a seat to a representative from the music industry or specialists in the field of health and safety, or drug research and policy development. Music professionals are calling for new ideas, and an open-dialogue with decision-makers. They’ve got Alex Greenwich in their corner. The independent Sydney MP is an outspoken advocate for harm minimisation measures and has repeated calls for government to adopt evidence-based policies. The so-called “war on drugs,” says Greenwich, has left “otherwise law abiding citizens with convictions, stigmatised drug users, discouraged problem users from getting help and supported organised crime, all while failing to decrease the demand for mind altering substances.”

Greenwich considers the merits for pill testing so overwhelming, he gave notice of a motion to discuss the success of a trial at Groovin’ the Moo in the Legislative Assembly back in May. Pill testing saves lives, the MP says. TIO caught up with Greenwich to discuss his position on this hot topic.

pill testing kit at music festival

TIO: Premier Berejiklian made her thoughts very clear when she said her government does not support pill testing. Will we ever see a change in policy?
Alex Greenwich: I certainly hope so and we know that the international evidence, and indeed the local evidence, from the ACT, about the success of pill testing is well-documented and indeed growing. In politics you’re often told “no” a lot before you hear “yes.” I hope that will be the case when it comes to harm minimisation techniques like pill testing. The government is having a very superficial look at the matter and their approach to criminalising drug use and simply creating new offenses; the evidence is out there that that fails. And the war on drugs has not saved any lives and it’s certainly done nothing to reduce substance use or abuse. What we know or need is health-centered harm minimisation techniques and it’s my job and the job of my colleagues who support pill testing right across the parliament to make it clear that, actually, pill testing saves lives. If people are able to see what is in the drugs they are consuming, they are less likely to consume them. They’re able to check the substance to see if there’s going to have a deadly effect on them or not. This isn’t about promoting or encouraging drug use, this is about making sure people are safe and making sure people know what they’re putting into their system.

The Premier says that testing is giving the green light to drug use. Was there any evidence out of the Groovin’ the Moo trial that suggested testing did give the green light to drug use?
Indeed, the evidence from Groovin’ the Moo was that people who otherwise would have consumed substances that would have had a negative impact on their health and well-being didn’t consume those substances. That’s the model we should be looking at. Not pretending that drug use doesn’t happen, but actually making sure people know what they’re putting into their system and therefore making it less likely that they will do that.

When Premier Berejiklian quietly announced an expert panel to provide advice on how to keep people safe at festivals, it became clear she didn’t engage with the music community. Are you confident there will be some flexibility for others to be included?
We’re yet to really hear the terms of the reference, what is the consultation etc that will occur during this panel. I hope that the panel will directly engage with the industry, and with organisations focused on harm ministration as well. I will say that with my dealings with and having followed the work of Kerry Chant (NSW Chief Medical Officer) and Mick Fuller (Police Commissioner), both are interested in community safety. Both are people who understand the importance of a health-centered approach. I would say that I wouldn’t rule out the effectiveness of the panel in making some good recommendations knowing there are quite eminent people on it who do rely on evidence. Let’s see how the panel goes. What I would say is that for the panel to really make credible recommendations, they can only do that if they do engage with the music industry, with people who attend music festivals and indeed with harm minimisation organizations.

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pill testing
pill testing

It’s a tricky time for the music industry in NSW. The lockout laws have created all sorts of issues for people working in live music and clubs in inner Sydney. And now the Premier has said she wants to shut-down at least this festival. Sydney’s creative community feels under threat right now.
It does feel that we deal in this space with, from the lock-out through to the Premier’s statement on pill testing, that we’re dealing with a knee-jerk reaction rather than how we can be supporting the music industry to thrive…encouraging what is an amazing and very talented industry in NSW, it’s something we should be proud of and promoting. It always concerns me when we seek to demonise, or lock out. I’m continuing to advocate for a wind-back of the lockout, I’m continuing to advocate for a focus on promoting and supporting safe and well-run venues, to be able to thrive. Any global city needs that, the heart and soul of the city can be its entertainment and music industry. People in Sydney like to go out, they like to have a good time. They like to be safe and we can do all that here. What we need to do is get away from the knee-jerk government reaction and we need to focus on evidence-based approaches to have a safe and vibrant nightlife economy, but also just general entertainment economy because increasingly things are happening during the day now.

How will you take this message forward?
The upcoming NSW election will be a really important platform for people young and old who enjoy music festivals, who enjoy going out, who work in the industry or associated industries to make sure their voices are heard. And make sure every party and independents knows that they’re going to be held accountable for the policies they come up with the impact those policies have on the industry.