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Amnesty bins welcome but not a substitute for a pill testing trial

December 2019

While not a substitute for a well-designed and rigorously evaluated pill testing trial, St Vincent’s Health Australia has welcomed the NSW Government’s announcement to provide drug amnesty bins at NSW music and dance festivals.

However, the healthcare organisation said it was disappointing the NSW Premier announced she had “closed the door” on pill testing.

Dr Jennifer Stevens, Director of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s Acute Pain Service – and the author of an open letter signed by 26 other senior St Vincent’s clinicians and department heads to the NSW Premier urging her to introduce a pill testing trial – also said the government should test the drugs disposed in amnesty bins to help reduce harms. 

“St Vincent’s recognises the challenges facing the government keeping festival-goers safe from drug-related harms. We understand the Premier’s concerns that pill testing may wrongly lend drug taking the appearance of safety,” said Dr Stevens.

“Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the evidence, and the evidence tells us that a pill testing or drug checking trial will likely have a positive impact on reducing harms – including deaths – stemming from dangerous drug use.

“Pill testing isn’t a silver bullet for ending all drug-related harms and fatalities. No one is saying it is.

“Pill testing – if a trial finds it works – needs to be considered as part of a multi-faceted approach to the issue, including efforts such as providing amnesty bins and other initiatives.

“From our perspective, we believe that pill testing at festivals has the advantage of bringing a young person face-to-face with a trained professional before they ingest the drug. An opportunity for a counsellor or clinician to provide personalised information in a non-judgemental environment, including the offer of a pathway to treatment if necessary, is priceless.

“St Vincent’s regrets that our culture is one in which people use drugs, including alcohol to excess. Drug taking is not safe. Our hospital and clinicians see first-hand the damage that comes with alcohol and other drug use. Our addiction medicine facilities are often unable to meet demand for help.

“However, that’s why we believe a trial will contribute to the development of a more solid evidence-base concerning which interventions are the most successful in saving lives, challenging risky behaviours, and minimising damage, particularly in an Australian context.

“If people are determined to take drugs, then we need to understand whether drug checking can help keep them safe or save their lives.

“To make its ‘amnesty bins’ announcement more effective as a public health initiative, St Vincent’s recommends the NSW Government adds a testing component, so that any drugs that are disposed are analysed. This would provide health and law enforcement authorities with additional data for surveillance, drug trend monitoring, and the detection of new and emerging drugs.

“If the analysis was carried out on-site it would also provide health authorities with the opportunity to inform festival goers via their mobile phone of any particularly poisonous substances, as occurs at some festivals in Europe.

“St Vincent's will continue to advocate for a drug checking trial and is always willing to engage with the NSW Government on any measures aimed at keeping people safe from drug use,” said Dr Stevens.

Media contact: Paul Andrews 0409 665 495

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