Ecstasy and agony as pill testing gets another backer

Victorian festival-goers will be able to test drugs for potentially deadly chemicals as soon as this summer in a bid to combat mounting overdoses and deaths.

A pill-testing trial will operate at 10 festivals and other events over 18 months, Premier Jacinta Allan revealed on Tuesday after announcing the plan on social media on Monday night.

A fixed site will open in mid-2025 somewhere close to nightlife and transport in inner Melbourne.

Victorian paramedics have responded to more drug overdoses at festivals in the first three months of 2024 than all of 2023 and the state recorded 46 deaths from synthetic substances such as Fentanyl in 2022.

"We can put our heads in the sand like politicians have done for decades or we can change behaviour," Ms Allan told reporters on Tuesday.

No one will be told a drug is safe after it is checked.

"If a young person gets handed a pill at a festival they need someone to tell them exactly what it is and exactly what it does," the premier said.

The trial will cost Victorian taxpayers $4 million with pill testing to then become permanent once an operating model is finalised.

Mental Health Minister Ingrid Stitt said the service would be able to check pills, powders and liquids to identify harmful and potentially deadly chemicals.

Under the legislation to allow the trial, a licensing scheme will be set up to indemnify pill-testing operators and users from liability.

"It's very important from the outset to not present this as giving people the green light," Ms Stitt said.

"No drug use is safe."

The Royal Australian College of GPs, alcohol and drug groups and academics all hailed the trial as life-saving and evidenced-based policy.

The incoming law changes, likely to have crossbench support, will not decriminalise possession and supply of illicit drugs or strip police of drug-checking powers outside pill-testing sites.

Police and other authorities will instead be consulted to establish a "feasible arrangement" so people are not deterred from using the service.

Victorian Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said pill testing was not a panacea and flew in the face of long-accepted policing principles.

"The government will have to explain clearly to police and the community what it expects police to do in terms of enforcement in and around these events," he said.

Ms Allan sought advice from the health department in January after at least 10 people were taken to hospital following suspected drug use at festivals.

She said she had changed her tune on pill testing after watching her two children grow up and repeatedly pointed out evidence from overseas and interstate that showed drug testing worked to change behaviour.

But in April her government rejected setting up a second safe-injecting room in Melbourne despite a recommendation from former Victoria Police commissioner Ken Lay, who cited the death of one drug injector a month in the city.

Adriana Buccianti, whose son Daniel died of a drug overdose at the Rainbow Serpent music festival in 2012, praised the premier for reconsidering her pill-testing stance.

"Having this pill-testing doesn't condone drug use," she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

"It's a safety net."

Ms Allan's predecessor Daniel Andrews consistently rejected proposals for similar trials during his nine-year tenure.

Five Victorian coronial recommendations since 2021 have pushed for drug-checking services to reduce the risk of overdose deaths.

Queensland and the ACT are the only other Australian jurisdictions to have legalised pill testing.

A pill-testing service opened at Sydney's supervised injecting room in April but NSW Premier Chris Minns has delayed a decision on its broader legalisation until after a drugs summit.

Victorian Opposition Leader John Pesutto said the coalition would ban pill testing if elected in 2026.

"We think, strongly, that this gives a green light to ... the taking of pills and it also, unfortunately, lays out a welcome mat for those who will deal in pills and other drugs," he said.