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      Pill testing in NSW – Pros and Cons

      Following the death of two people from suspected drug overdoses at Defqon 1 the issue of pill testing in NSW at music festivals is back in the spotlight, particularly the pros and cons.

      While there are strong arguments for and against the idea, to date trials of pill testing have been ruled out. It has also threatened to cancel Defqon 1.  With charges for drug possession on the rise it is clear that the current system is not working.

      Pros and cons

      In its simplest form, the argument against pill testing is that the possession of prohibited drugs is illegal.  Nobody should have them, and we cannot condone their use.

      Those in favour of pill testing argue that the law in its current form and the strong emphasis on enforcement aren’t working. It hasn’t done anything to quell the number of people experimenting with drugs. They argue that the statistics show that young people are going to continue to take drugs at these events. Providing a testing facility means users would be aware of what substances are in their drugs. They could then make an informed decision about taking them and this may prevent prevent further deaths.

      Penalties for drug possession

      Police regularly use drug sniffer dogs to detect and search those carrying drugs at music festivals. Anyone in possession of prohibited drugs can be charged, have to attend court, and face a criminal conviction.

      In New South Wales, possession of a prohibited drug carries a maximum penalty of up to 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $2,200.

      Pill testing statistics

      Recent NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research statistics show that in the last 5 years in the Greater Sydney region, charges for the possession of amphetamine and cocaine have risen by over 30%. In 2017 alone, the number of people found guilty of drug related offences was 13,993. Irrespective of personal views, these figures support the argument that the current system simply isn’t working as the penalties are not stopping people from buying and taking potentially unsafe products.

      Introduction of safe injecting rooms

      When the NSW Government introduced safe injecting rooms more than 15 years ago the criticism was much the same. It was eventually recognised and accepted that drug users can’t always be prevented from using prohibited drugs. It was important to ensure there was a safe place for these people to use. Arguably, the introduction of these safe injection centres was a success for NSW. Not one person has died in Sydney’s safe injecting room as a result of an overdose.

      Legal problems with pill testing

      A trial of pill testing is not as straightforward as it might seem. The most obvious issue is the interaction between police and those using the drug testing facilities. Section 21 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 states that Police need to hold a reasonable suspicion that someone is in possession of drugs prior to searching them. It would be highly inappropriate for police stop and search people exiting a pill testing facility. But where would the line be drawn? Police are always present at festivals. Would the police be subject to some sort of exclusion zone around the testing area?

      Then there are issues with liability. What happens if someone dies after taking a drug which had been tested? Would the Government, the festival organisers, or even the person conducting the test be liable?

      Some festival organisers have previously cancelled the ticket of people who were even suspected of being in possession of prohibited drugs. That policy would need to be revised if testing was allowed. And finally, where would pill testing be allowed? Is it only music festivals or could it be extended to concerts and any other type of festival?

      Some argue that allowing testing of prohibited drugs is a slippery slope as it allows criminal behaviour to occur right under the nose of police and government. But if pill testing can help avoid deaths – why wouldn’t the Government, consider a trial?

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