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Premier, please help us save young lives: a plea from 27 doctors for pill testing

Jennifer Stevens - Sydney Morning Herald
November 2019

Dear Premier

Over several decades, we, along with many of our clinical predecessors have been involved in the treatment of those suffering harm from drugs and alcohol at St Vincent’s Hospital. The mainly young people who have unintentionally overdosed or been poisoned by drugs at music and dance festivals held in inner city locations, have often presented to us for our care. We regret that our culture is one in which people use drugs, including alcohol to excess, but acknowledge that experimentation with drugs, including alcohol, is especially common among young people.

We have seen the serious harms done to individuals, families and communities by these drugs. It is for this reason that as front-line clinicians, we wish to see the adoption of policies most likely to minimise this damage.

A number of our medical peers presented scientific evidence about maximising the safety of young people to the recent coronial inquest into the death of six patrons at NSW music festivals. Based on this evidence, they strongly recommended the establishment of a pill testing trial – recommendations that the NSW Deputy Coroner accepted and supported.

We, the undersigned St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney clinicians, encourage the NSW Government to adopt the recommendations of this coronial inquest.
Specifically, we encourage the government to prioritise methods that show evidence of reducing drug harms and deaths.
We support a well-designed pill testing trial to complement the compelling evidence that already exists. So far, the available evidence – including from the ACT’s experience with drug testing in 2018 and 2019 – suggests it is potentially an effective way of reducing the harms associated with drug use and saving lives.

From our experience, we believe that pill testing at festivals has the added advantage of bringing a young person face-to-face with a trained counsellor before they ingest the drug. Evidence to the coroner at the recent inquest demonstrated that none of the young people had ever spoken with an expert about the risks of MDMA or the potential danger of mixing drugs and alcohol. An opportunity for a trained counsellor to provide personalised information in a non-judgmental environment, including the offer of a pathway to treatment if necessary, is priceless.

It is our fundamental belief that prioritising enforcement over a public health approach to drug use has unintended consequences.

A core value of St Vincent’s is human dignity, and accordingly, we find it abhorrent that strip searches are used to investigate young people – including children – for personal possession. Strip searches, as currently conducted, demean both the individual and the police conducting the search. We admire and applaud the work of NSW’s police for the many ways they keep our community safe. However, strip searching young people for investigation of personal possession is not something police should be asked to undertake, nor should young people have to endure.

We note that another recommendation of the coroner’s report – and which has been made at previous inquests – is the holding of a NSW Drug Summit. The previous NSW Drug Summit in 1999 was a watershed moment for public health policy in the state and was responsible for establishing the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross, which has saved hundreds of lives.

We believe a summit in 2020 could be similarly defining in terms of a public health approach to drug use and we strongly urge the NSW government to accept this recommendation.

We feel strongly that young people who experiment with drugs and alcohol should have their safety as our highest priority. They should be able to look back one day, as many of us do, and be grateful they survived the ‘invincibility’ of youth.

Equally, let us look back – as their parents, as their clinicians, as their policymakers and leaders – and know we did what we could to help them stay safe, founding our actions on the evidence-based methods that are likely to prove the most successful.

Premier, if you choose to boldly heed the evidence and respond accordingly, we will stand alongside you, shoulder to shoulder, in any implementation.


Professor Kay Wilhelm AM
Director of Psychiatry

Professor Richard Day AM
Director of Clinical Pharmacology

Professor Peter MacDonald
Co-Head, Transplantation Research Laboratory

Dr David Williams
Director of Gastroenterology

Dr Michelle Moyle
Director of Anaesthesia

Professor Richard Chye
Director of Supportive and Palliative Care

Dr John Rooney
Director of Orthopaedics

Dr Monique Malouf

Professor Milton Cohen AM

Dr Priya Nair
Director of Intensive Care

Director of Lung Transplant
Dr Paul Jansz

Dr Elias Moisidis
Director of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

A/Prof Steven Faux
Director of Rehabilitation and Pain Medicine

Dr Mark Winder
Director of Neurosurgery

Dr David Ende
Director of Urology

Professor Michael Feneley AM
Director of the Heart Lung Programme and Cardiology

Professor Jacob Sevastos
Director of Nephrology

A/Prof Richard Gallagher
Director of Cancer Services, Director of Head and Neck Surgery

Dr Paul Preisz
Director of Emergency Medicine

A/Prof Nadine Ezard
Clinical Director, Alcohol and Drug Service
Dr Jennifer Stevens
Director of Acute Pain Service

Dr Anthony Chambers
Director of Surgical Oncology

A/Prof Anthony Grabs
Director of Trauma

Dr Vincent Lamaro
Director of Gynaecology

A/Prof Alexander Beveridge
Director of Geriatrics

Professor Christopher Hayward

Dr Greg O’Sullivan OAM

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