City Hub: Calls ramp up for NSW Premier to follow Victoria’s footsteps and implement pill testing

In response to the rise of a deadly drug and a string of overdoses, the Victorian Government announced on Monday, June 24, that they will conduct a pill testing trial for 18 months with plans to make the service permanent. Calls are now mounting for NSW Premier Chris Minns to step up and do the same. 

Nitazene is a potent substance 500 times stronger than heroin, according to NSW Health, and is continuously found in illegal drugs across the state. 

Yet despite rising pressure on the premier to follow the example of other states and implement pill testing, there was no funding in last week’s budget for the long-awaited Drug Summit.

Pill testing is a harm reduction strategy that allows a person to find out what the pill contains, preventing people from using “unusually strong or contaminated drugs”.  

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Pill testing is proven to save lives 

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan announced the change after four deaths were reported over the weekend due to suspected drug overdose.

“I want to be really clear here – this doesn’t make drugs legal and it most certainly doesn’t make drugs safe,” Allan said on Tuesday.

“We’re doing this because all the evidence says it works. The evidence tells us it changes behaviour. It’s a simple, commonsense way to save lives.”

“We’ve seen an increasing number of overdoses across the country being caused by the extremely deadly substance nitazene,” said Cate Faehrmann, Greens MP and drug law reform and harm reduction spokesperson.

“No matter what you think about drugs, you can’t stop people from taking them. But you can stop people dying from them,” she continued.

The US and UK have seen high numbers of overdoses with substances like fentanyl and nitazene being found in heroin, cocaine, ice, and other illegal drugs.

Pill testing is available in countries around the world, including the UK, Spain, and New Zealand. In Australia, ACT was the first state to implement pill testing at the Groovin’ the Moo Festival in 2018 and 2019, becoming the first state to introduce a government-approved fixed pill testing site. Queensland followed suit earlier in 2024. 

According to research, Australians are becoming more in favour of pill testing. The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicated that 57 per cent of Australians supported pill testing and 27 per cent were directly opposed. 

“Increasingly, illegal drugs are starting to be found cut with these substances here in Australia too. This should be ringing alarm bells at the highest levels,” continued Faehrmann. 

“The majority of the public supports pill testing and it’s proven to save lives. Let’s just get on with it.”

Too much spent on law enforcement, not enough on harm reduction

The last Drug Summit was held 25 years ago by then-Premier Bob Carr in response to families losing loved ones addicted to, and dying from, heroin. The summit resulted a recommendation to establish a medically supervised injecting centre to save lives, which has been operating in Kings Cross since 2001.

Lydia Shelly, the president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, has also called on Premier Chris Minns and the state Labor party to honour their election commitment and promise to the people of NSW and announce the date for a 5-day NSW Drug Summit.

“Prior to the election Drug Law Reform was one of Labor’s ‘top priorities’,” said Shelly.

“For the last two elections Labor has promised to hold a drug summit to bring ‘all the policy experts together’. With the Government’s radio silence on this issue, the people of NSW continue to suffer from an outdated, harmful approach to drugs.”

Emphasising the need for health-informed responses, Shelly said, “We are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis where vulnerable people find themselves with very limited options to seek treatment and support for problematic drug use.”

“We know that this group faces needless, expensive and harmful interactions with the criminal justice system – all of which can be disastrous for them, their families and our community.”

“People who face drug dependency should be able to access treatment and support services, not gaol.”

“We know from UNSW’s Policy Modelling Program that Australian governments spend more on law enforcement in illicit drug policy than treatment, prevention and harm reduction combined, with nearly 65% of the funds spent on law enforcement, and less than 2% on harm reduction.” 

Minns has previously stated that there is no safety in drug consumption, and he would have already implemented pill testing if it was the solution.

“It’s not simply the case that people are taking compromised drugs and a pill-testing regime would allow a festival-goer to understand that,” he said in October last year following the deaths of two men who died after attending the Knockout Festival music festival in Western Sydney.

“I’d make the decision yesterday if it was the single decision the government could take to save lives but at the end of the day this is risky, it’s risky if you take ecstasy at a festival.”

Impacts of the media on pill testing debate

City Hub spoke with Katherine Scanlon, a PhD candidate at Victoria University, who is currently researching pill testing and how it is presented in the media and on social media. 

“Pill testing is a harm reduction strategy. It doesn’t increase harm, it just helps reduce it,” Scanlon explained. “It’s not new. It’s something that’s been happening globally for many years.”

“We’ve seen that pill testing can help make people not take drugs. It can reduce the amount of drugs people take.”

She emphasised the humanity of people impacted by drug use, saying “we need to keep young people safe. We need to keep them alive so that they can go home to their families.”

On why people oppose pill testing, Scanlon explains the rhetoric of ‘just say no’ to drugs has been around for the last 50 years. “It’s difficult for society to move on from this moral stance, but young people don’t deserve to be harmed or die just because they make one risky decision.”

Scanlon goes on to describe the two distinct sides of the debate to introduce pill testing and the role of media in portraying an often negative image.

“The issue with the media and many Australians is that everything they know about pill testing is from the media, not their lived experiences. It can be really impactful.  Not everyone goes to these festivals or is surrounded by people who have done drugs. So, what the media says is really significant.” 

Answering the question of bigger harm reduction strategies, Scanlon expresses that as a society “we need to approach the stigma associated with drug use and drug addiction, moving these issues from a criminal stance to a health one.”