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New Zealand pill testing advocate says Australian response to music festival deaths served as example of what not to do



The managing director of a New Zealand pill testing organisation has said that Australian measures to limit drug deaths at music festivals served as an example of what not to do when it came to harm reduction efforts.

Wendy Allison, managing director of Know Your Stuff NZ – a harm reduction community organisation that offers pill testing services – told triple j’s Hack program yesterday (April 13) that they had looked at Australian measures around safety at music festivals and decided that would not be how they approach harm reduction.

“We looked at Australia before we started doing this and we went sniffer dogs, strip searches, dead kids, we’re not doing that,” Allison told the programme.

Allison’s comments come after New Zealand Health Minister Andrew Little announced last week that the government would permanently legalise pill testing at music festivals, after introducing temporary legislation in December 2020 ahead of summer festival season.

“New Zealand police seem to be taking a somewhat different approach from the Australian police, in that they have taken a very hands off approach to our work,” Allison also told Hack. “They have stood back and let us get on with it.

“They can see that it’s preventing harm [and] people who come to see us are less likely to be seeing them later.”

Know Your Stuff NZ attended 16 festivals this year and at one festival, they conducted around 400 tests, Allison told Hack.

Know Your Stuff NZ, which is volunteer-run, had to turn down a further 24 festivals, Allison told, because they lacked the resources for them. “If we have any hope of meeting the demand that we’re now aware exists, we need a lot more gear,” she said.

Per a November 2020 journal article, the 2019 Australian Election Study found that nearly two thirds of respondents were in support of pill testing at Australian music festivals.

But the practice remains without widespread government support in Australia. Pill testing has only been trialled at the Canberra leg of Groovin the Moo in 2018 and 2019, following support from the ACT Government.

In August 2019, Pill Testing Australia released the findings from their second pilot of the practice at Groovin the Moo earlier that year. Deeming it an “overwhelming success”, the service tested 170 substances for 234 participants and found seven dangerous substances. When alerted of their potential harm, all festivalgoers used the provided amnesty bin to discard their substances.

In November 2019, NSW coroner Harriet Grahame recommended pill testing in the state following a coronial inquest into drug-related deaths at NSW music festivals over the summer of 2017 and 2018. Grahame recommended the measure’s introduction in order to limit strip searches and sniffer dogs at festivals.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has remained firmly against pill testing over the last few years. Following the coronial inquest in 2019, Premier Berejiklian said she was “closing the door” on the possibility of introducing pill testing, ignoring the bulk of recommendations made by the coroner.

“None of those lives would have been saved [by pill testing] because it was pure MDMA that killed those young people,” she commented at the time.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also said that “we won’t be changing our policy” in response to calls for pill testing in 2019.

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