Pill testing at music festivals – how does it actually work?

Olivia Lambert
Associate News Editor


There are fears more young people will have to die from illicit drugs before pill testing is allowed at music festivals, say those behind the push to introduce the safety measure.

David Caldicott, emergency consultant and the designer of Australia’s first ever festival pill testing trial, believes the idea does not encourage young people to take illegal substances but instead will prevent deaths in the Australian music scene.

As he fights for pill testing to be allowed at music festivals, Dr Caldicott explains to Yahoo News how it will actually work.

A 22-year-old man died from an overdose at Lost Paradise in December. Source: Lost Paradise Music Festival/Facebook

How pills will be tested at music festivals

Dr Caldicott designed Australia’s first and only pill testing trial at Groove In The Moo in Canberra in April last year.

If pill testing is allowed in the country, testing tents will be set up alongside medical areas at a number of popular festivals.

As revellers holding illicit drugs approach the tent to test their pills, they will first have to surrender their mobile phones to maintain confidentiality.

“We then read a series of statements and get them to sign them,” Dr Caldicott said.

“We tell them the only way to be 100 per cent certain they will not be harmed is not to take any drugs. We will not tell you if your drugs are safe but that it is possible there is a chemical in your drug that we won’t recognise and it could be dangerous.”

The pill testing machine used to check illicit drugs for dangerous chemicals. Source: Pill Testing Australia

Dr Caldicott said those wanting to proceed would head into the tent where they are given a waiting number.

They then choose whether they want chemists to take half the pill or simply a scrape.

It is put on a platform where it is weighed, photographed and measured. The drug is ground up and a laser is shun into the pile of dust, where reflections act like a fingerprint and match it with one of the 30,000 drugs in an international drug database.

“At that stage the analysis is given. It gives no information about any other drug they have in their possession, just the one that was tested,” Dr Caldicott said.

“The punter will be told what the drug contains and the effects that could have on you. You are not providing any moral judgement, just reminding them what could happen.”

‘Testing can discourage drug use’

After the drug is tested, festival-goers are then encouraged to speak to young people from the music scene about ways of not getting hurt when taking drugs.

All up the process is completed in about 20 minutes.

Dr Caldicott said he saw successful results from Australia’s first and only trial last year, with many young people opting to take less drugs or none at all.

The machine that can detect dangerous chemicals in illicit drugs. Source: Pill Testing Australia

“We’re providing something close to a magic trick,” he said.

“We are providing an analysis in front of them then saying, ‘you decide, up to you’. For the most part Aussies should be proud they mostly make a sensible decision.”

Dr Caldicott said pill testing undermined those manufacturing and dealing drugs because users were more aware of what dangerous chemicals could be in them.

Tragic deaths at music festivals

A 20-year-old Victorian man died in hospital earlier this month after a suspected overdose or snake bite at the Beyond The Valley music festival.

Early reports suggested the man died of a suspected overdose but his family have since spoken out claiming snake venom was found in his system.

Another man in his 20s cheated death after overdosing at the same event.

That was just days after a 22-year-old Queenslander Joshua Tam died after overdosing at the Lost Paradise Festival north of Sydney at the end of December.

Five revellers have died at Australian music festivals in about five months.

Former AFP commissioner Mark Palmer said “enough is enough” and governments must consider all available evidence, including pill testing, in a bid to save lives because the punitive approach had failed.

Joshua Tam died from an overdose at Lost Paradise Festival last month. Source: 7 News

“Pill testing is not a silver bullet but it’s a proven and positive way to help prevent this kind of tragedy, has majority support from Australians and must be a least trialled on a pilot basis – if it doesn’t work stop it,” he said.

He claimed while young people could easily obtain drugs, they did not know what they were taking.

“It’s not good enough for governments to ignore the available evidence when determining strategy and policy,” he said.

“We have doctors and drug treatment experts standing by to make live music and festivals safer for our kids with pill testing.”

Will pill testing be implemented?

Pill testing is a matter for individual states.

Acting Victorian Premier Tim Pallas said the government had no plans to change its policy.

“It would create a false sense of security if essentially we were allowing people to access pill testing rather than say ‘don’t take illicit drugs’,” he told reporters.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the government was doing everything it could to make festivals less harmful, but drugs were not safe “under any circumstances”.

“Unfortunately we know that pill testing does not deal with overdoses, pill testing does not assist when there’s drugs and alcohol mixed, pill testing does not help when one pill, which is lethal to one person and isn’t lethal to another,” she said.

Fall Festival released a drug alert ahead of their latest event to warn revellers about drugs. Source: Supplied

Earlier this month Western Australia ruled out pill testing. In Queensland, the health minister is considering the results of the trial in Canberra before making a call.

In Tasmania, where the Falls Festival is hosted between Christmas and New Year, the Liberal Government has previously labelled pill testing “quality assurance for illicit and unlawful drug pushers”.

David Caldicott fears more young people will die from drugs before pill testing is allowed. Source: Getty

Dr Caldicott said nothing made it OK for young people to die as a result of taking drugs.

“Our goal should be fewer people dying,” he said.

Dr Caldicott believes a few more lives will tragically be lost before governments allow pill testing.

“I don’t have words to describe how sad that makes me feel,” he said.

For more information visit pilltestingaustralia.com.au.

With AAP