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Pill Testing Trial Bill 2023 Second Read Speech

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
29 November 2023

I’m very proud to introduce the Greens Pill Testing Trial Bill 2023 as the Greens drug law reform and harm reduction spokesperson.

Four years ago, six young people died after attending music festivals in NSW.

Nathan Tran, Diana Nguyen, Joseph Pham, Callum Brosnan, Joshua Tam, and Alex Ross-King died from drug overdoses, specifically MDMA toxicity, over a 13-month period from December 2017 to January 2019.

A Coronial Inquest was established into the six deaths.

The Inquest took extensive evidence over 16 days, receiving extensive documentary material in 24 volumes.

In addition, eight volumes of research were tendered. 

In her final report, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame stated:

“The evidence arising from this inquest clearly indicates that there is much that can be done to prevent MDMA deaths.

There are practical solutions to some of the issues identified.

However, the evidence draws into clear focus the need for the NSW Government to look with fresh eyes at the potential dangers associated with drug use at music festivals.

There is a need to reframe our main priority from reducing drug use to reducing drug death.”

She also stated that “it is difficult to properly explain the potential risks to young people if our only permissible message is “just say no”.

 

The Deputy Coroner made recommendations relating to drug checking and drug law enforcement, many of which are still yet to be implemented.

Notably, she recommended:

“1. That the Department of Premier and Cabinet permits and facilitates Pill Testing Australia, The Loop Australia, or another similarly qualified organisation to run front of house medically supervised pill testing/drug checking at music festivals in NSW with a pilot date starting the summer of 2019–20.

  1. That the Department of Premier and Cabinet, working with NSW Health and NSW Police, fund the establishment of a permanent drug checking facility, similar to the Dutch model known as the Drug Information Monitoring System.

3.That the Department of Premier and Cabinet, working with NSW Health, research and support the development of technology to allow for the most sophisticated and detailed drug analysis to be made available on site at music festivals.”

The following year, the then NSW Premier commissioned another extensive, groundbreaking inquiry into how to reduce drug-related harm, the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’. 

This inquiry was established to investigate and advise on how best to tackle the growing issue of ice and other amphetamine-type stimulants.

Commissioner Dan Howard found:

“there is strong and compelling evidence to support substance testing as an effective harm reduction measure used in conjunction with other harm reduction strategies.”

The Inquiry made 109 recommendations to issues across government, including that the NSW Government establish a state-wide clinically supervised substance testing,

education and information service with branches at fixed-site locations, and trial an onsite substance testing service at a music festival, to be independently evaluated.

At the time, implementation of a pill testing service had strong public support.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, National Household Drug survey found that 57% of respondents supported a proposal ‘allowing potential drug users to test their pills/drugs at designated sites’ - 

that’s 3 in 5 Australians.

That same year, The Guardian essential poll found that 63% supported pill testing at music festivals,

with 24% opposed, and 12% indicating they were unsure.

In September of this year,

safe drug use advocacy group Unharm penned a letter to the Premier calling for the government to set up pill testing services before the summer.

The letter outlined the safety and harm-reduction offerings of pill testing services,

the success of pill testing in other jurisdictions,

and the urgency to act before the upcoming hot summer season.

The letter was co-signed by experts across the health, legal, and alcohol and other drugs sectors including Uniting,

the alcohol and other drugs peak body NADA, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners,

UNSW’s Drug Policy Modelling Program, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation,

the Australian Festival Association, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

Despite having a clear policy mandate, public support and unanimous support from stakeholders, Governments continue to sit back and do nothing.

Now, this year in NSW two young men have already died due to what was probably drug overdoses, though that has not been confirmed in the media or by their families, after attending music festivals over the October long weekend.

That same long weekend a significant number of young people were also taken to hospital after overdosing at music festivals.

These deaths have raised calls once again for more to be done to reduce drug-related harm and for NSW to adopt a health approach to drug use to save lives.

NSW, like many other parts of the world, has naively pedalled a zero-tolerance approach to drugs for decades.

Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear for pretty much everyone that this “war on drugs” approach has been a dismal failure.

In 2021, there were 2,231 drug-induced deaths in Australia.

75%, or 3 in 4, of these were unintentional

There’s 71% more of these unintentional deaths from drugs in 2021 than twenty years ago in 2001.

This Bill offers an important step for NSW to choose to prioritise reducing the harm from drugs and saving lives, over punishing people for choosing to use illegal drugs.

This Bill represents our commitment to making sure that the more than one million people in NSW who choose to use drugs, are less likely to come to harm.

It's important to understand that when we talk about pill testing as a means for harm reduction, we're not treading a new path.

Some countries have been leading in the harm reduction space for years.

The most well known is Portugal.

There, pill testing was implemented following decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001.

Then there's Switzerland. Their model doesn't just provide substance test results; they offer guidance.

They understand that knowledge without context is incomplete, so they ensure their citizens receive expert advice alongside their results.

The Netherlands now boasts over 20 pill drop-off points,

making pill testing an accessible and routine aspect of the country’s public health services.

Research from the Netherlands has even shown no increases in the use of most party-drugs or poly-drug use because of pill testing and provision of drug information.

In fact, by accurately identifying drug content and purity/potency, the Netherlands’ Drug Information and Monitoring System, has informed national warning campaigns, which has pushed dangerous, low-quality substances from the market.

In the UK, fixed-site and mail-in testing services are available. The mail-in service in particular provides a public interest benefit,

results are posted on the website for anyone to see alongside the first part of the postcode of where the sample was submitted from.

This means that it’s possible to see trends in the market in your local area.

In Canada, gas and liquid chromatography is used to provide drug checking services. 

These sophisticated lab-based technologies offer detailed information about which drugs are found in each sample,

along with some information about how much of each drug is present to allow users to understand the potency of their samples.

A recent review of drug checking services highlighted the importance of these services in response to the introduction of potent synthetic drugs into the North Americans drug supply.

Across the Tasman, New Zealand's KnowYourStuffNZ initiative is not just about checking; 

it's about creating a safer consumption culture.

They've witnessed a shift, a move towards safer drug consumption habits.

Here in Australia, the ACT has been a trailblazer.

A pill testing trial was first undertaken at Groovin the Moo festival in 2019 by Pill Testing Australia.

They tested 171 samples from 234 patrons, finding 7 samples containing the potentially lethal substance n-ethylpentylone.

Information from the potentially harmful samples was then able to be used by authorities to notify patrons in the pill testing services,

festival medical services and ACT Health.

The ACT went on to open a fixed site pill testing service last year known as CanTEST.

CanTEST didn't just serve as an experiment, but it successfully demonstrated the measurable impact pill testing can have on individuals.

When people were informed about the risks in their substances, individuals made the choice to change their drug-taking behaviour.

According to a review of CanTEST,

where an unexpected drug, an additional drug, or inconclusive result was returned, 32% of patrons stated that they definitely will not use the drug.

Even where no adverse result was returned, 31% of patrons stated they were unsure if they would use the drug and 8% said they would definitely not use the drug.

This is proof that when given the right information and trusted to make informed decisions for themselves, people are likely to do so.

And just last weekend, pill testing was undertaken at Canberra’s Spilt Milk festival.

Queensland is now in the process of implementing two fixed drug-checking sites and mobile services for events such as music festivals and sporting events.

In fact it’s expected that before the end of this year, Queensland will become the first Australian state to offer drug users multiple free services to test illegal substances such as ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine.

So when we discuss the future of NSW and this Bill, know that we are not venturing into the unknown.

We're catching up with the world leaders in drug harm reduction, a collective of regions that have chosen proactive care over reactive law and order.

This Bill makes this a reality in NSW.

—-

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill, which outline how, where and when pill testing services may be undertaken in NSW as part of the trial.

Part 1 of the proposed Act states the objects of the Act.

Namely, it seeks to “to reduce the number of avoidable deaths caused by using substances that are,

or that contain, a prohibited drug, scheduled substance or another substance that would cause harm if ingested.

This is ultimately the goal of pill testing services. 

No matter your personal politics on drug use, it is an objective truth that pill testing saves lives.

It is also the duty of the people in this place, as well as the other place, to keep the people of this state safe.

This Bill ensures that that duty underpins the proposed Act.

It further listed as objects of the Act:

“to provide for users and potential users of those substances to receive information

about the composition of those substances for the purpose of reducing the potential harm caused by using those substances; and

to provide for users and potential users of those substances to receive drug counselling

services for the purpose of reducing the potential harm caused by using those substances.”

I’ll also mention at this point that while this bill uses the term ‘pill testing’ throughout, it is drug checking services, of any substance, that can be provided under it.

The objects envisage that a pill testing service in NSW will provide patrons with tailored harm reduction supports, guidance, and referral to services such as supervised consumption and referral to primary health care.

Part 2 of the Bill outlines the process by which pill testing licences are conferred.

Under the framework established through the proposed Act,

applicants can seek a fixed premises pill testing licence or a mobile pill testing licence.

Applications must be made in writing to the Secretary of NSW Health,

accompanied by documents which verify the applicant as a fit and proper person to hold a pill testing licence under the Act.

The proposed Act provides the Secretary with factors that must be considered in determining whether the applicant is a fit and proper person.

The applicant must also provide details of where and when pill testing services will be provided.

In the case of a mobile drug testing licence, the applicant must provide the details of the concert, festival, dance party or similar festival at which the pill testing services will be provided.

Upon receiving an application for a pill testing licence, the Secretary may issue a pill testing licence if satisfied that the applicant has met the requirements under the Act and

The proposed pill testing service is appropriate for the location and proposed security arrangements available.

The determination of an application is entirely at the discretion of the Secretary,

and is not subject to review.

We believe that this strikes an appropriate balance in giving effect to a pill testing trial,

while ensuring that all the requisite checks and balances are in place before services can be provided.

This includes ensuring that appropriately qualified organisations are selected to participate in the trial.

The details of all pill testing licences conferred in NSW will be available on the NSW Health website, outlining where, when and how these services are available.

Part 2 also allows for stringent reporting conditions on pill testing licencees.

The Minister may make regulations prescribing the reporting of certain test results.

This could include a sample test result containing a previously-unseen contaminant or a dangerously potent sample of a particular drug.

Where this occurs, the pill testing licensee must notify the NSW Chief Health Officer, the Secretary, and the Commissioner of Police within 24 hours of the test result.

Separate to this, a pill testing licensee must keep all records of testing as required in a manner prescribed by the regulations.

NSW Health will be required to publish information about testing on its website as determined by the Minister in the regulations.

These recordkeeping and reporting requirements will ensure information about dangerous and high-risk drugs will be quickly communicated to relevant authorities and made available to the public.

Part 3 ensures that a person who provides a sample to a staff member of a pill testing service is exempt from criminal liability under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 or the Medicines, Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 2022.

An exemption from civil action is also provided to any action taken by a pill testing service employee, to the extent that the action was done in good faith as part of the employee’s role at the service.

Importantly, Part 4 provides for a review of the Act after a period of nine months following the commencement of the Act.

The Minister will then have a further three months after the end of the nine month period to table a report to Parliament.

As this Bill seeks only to implement a trial of pill testing services, the proposed Act will automatically repeal after a period of two years.

As I commend this Bill to the House, I want to again turn to the tragic events over the October long weekend.

Shortly after hearing of the deaths, the Minister for Health, despite acknowledging how tragic the deaths were,

emphasised that pill testing isn't a standalone solution.

No one has ever said it was.

But as Jen Ross-King poignantly pointed out,

Whose daughter Alex Ross King died after attending one of those music festivals four years ago - if pill testing was available, Alex would have used it. She would have got information about how to reduce the harm.

She probably would not have taken all her drugs at once either because the provision of pill testing services requires the cooperation of the police.

Pill Testing Australia, one of the organisations behind the successful CanTEST Drug Checking Service operating in Canberra is calling for pill testing to be immediately implemented, 

They’re not only calling for it. They’re saying they are ‘ready to go’ in terms of providing a pill testing service.

For free. But we shouldn’t require them to do this for free of course. 

We know that pill testing works.

As we await the Government’s drug summit for which we still don’t have a date, why aren’t we acting now to reduce the likelihood of further deaths at music festivals?

Just last week NSW Health issued alerts about cocaine and ketamine being bought on the streets of Sydney that had cut with potentially deadly substances, like heroin and fentanyl. 

One person had died and others were rushed to hospital after having what they thought was a line of coke, or a bump of k.

But how is NSW Health getting these messages out there? Do you think that young people going for a night out are going to be following NSW Health on instagram or twitter?

We must do more if we are to save lives

Because despite the risks, we know that the ‘just say no’ approach doesn’t work.

It never has, it never will.

To quote the President and Co-Founder of Harm Reduction Australia, Gino Vumbaca,

“Once you accept the fact that your child has already purchased drugs to use in a music festival context, who is the last person you want them to talk to before they use the drug?

For me it’s people like Dr David Caldicott or Steph and Penny from Dancewize. 

I would prefer them to get their information from these health professionals, counsellors and other experts rather than the person they just bought the drug off or someone they bumped into at the festival.

In the words of Ice Inquiry Commissioner Dan Howard: 

“Implementing the recommendations will require a substantial investment by government of financial and other resources. It will also require a determined and sustained effort, political leadership and courage. 

That is what is missing at this point in time in this state.

Finally, President, I thank all of the drug law reform advocates with whom I’ve worked closely with over the years and who have provided invaluable advice and support, including:

  • Alex Wodak
  • Gino Vumbaca
  • Maryanne Jauncey
  • Mary Harrod
  • Will Tregoning
  • Jen Ross-King

I also want to thank my team for all their work on this bill, on this issue and on our wider campaign for drug law reform and harm reduction - Ben Cronly, Seppy Pour, and before June, Jacob Miller.

I’d like to finish today by quoting Jen Ross-King, mother of Alex, her only child:

“I can’t change what happened to Alex but I sure as hell can try and make a difference to another family and another child so they can get the right information and make an informed choice about what they’re doing. No one is giving a green light. A green light is not needed. Kids are doing it. They have the caps or pills in their hands. 

So now it’s not about zero tolerance and causing more harm by ignoring the fact they’re doing it. It’s about providing them with information so that they can protect themselves and we can reduce as much harm as possible. And that’s the difference between zero tolerance and harm reduction. We may not reach every child, but at the moment we’re not reaching anybody.”

I commend the bill to the house.

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
29 November 2023
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