Response to QandA on Drugs

To watch the full QandA session or read the transcript click here.

The ABC QandA program on Monday 18 February covered drug law reform issues focussing on pill testing at musical festivals. Tony Jones is the host of the program.

The panel consisted of Chief Superintendent Stuart Smith, NSW Acting Assistant Commissioner, Kerryn Redpath, author, drug educator and former drug user; Dr David Caldicott, pioneer of pill testing in Australia; Dr Marianne Janucey, Medical Director, Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre; Mick Palmer, former AFP Commissioner.

Some FFDLR members submitted questions but unfortunately none of them seemed to be selected. Thank you to all who took the time to do so. If you were in the audience please let us know your thoughts on the program.

In response to a question about the Portugal model of decriminalisation Tony asked Stuart Smith if decriminalising would make his job easier and his response was, “we’d solve a lot more homicides, I guess”. But Keryn Redpath’s response to this was that the success of the Portuguese model “was a complete myth”. She said that people are still seen on the streets “hitting up drugs”.

David Caldicott replied, “wherever we have this situation we have a trade-off – you have a trade between how many people use drugs and how many people die from drugs. As a medical practitioner we are pretty keen on the not dying thing. Portugal has an order of magnitude of less deaths than we have in Australia”.

Dr David Caldicott told us that the person who introduced the Portugal experience is now the Secretary General of the United Nations. David went on to say that the ( Secretary General) still believes the same way about drugs and health and globally this is changing dramatically, by the year and Australia will look a little foolish, soon very soon, if we continue to prosecute policies that are more reminiscent of Nancy Reagan than of any other form of policy.”

The following is the answer that doctors David Caldicott and Marianne Jauncey gave to the commonly heard objection that pill testing is pointless in the case of ecstasy because festival goers can die from consumption of that drug. This was the case of Anna Woods, whose father Tony put that objection to the panel.

David Caldicott: First I want to say from my perspective as somebody who stands ideologically opposed to where you stand. I have just the greatest grief and sympathy for where you’re at. I have five little kids myself and I can’t imagine…And I’m not going to participate in any debate. You get to choose how you grieve, Sir.

David Calidcott: With regards to MDMA [ecstasy] and there’s been a lot said about this. I think one of the greatest misconceptions is that what we’re trying to do is trying to treat overdoses with pill testing. We’re not. We’re trying to stop people putting pills in their mouths. So, in that way, and I don’t wish to personalise this, if somebody in a similar circumstance were to come to us and to have a substance analysed, and we were to find out, say ,it was just MDMA, they would still nevertheless have a conversation about what MDMA can do to you on its own. And that would be far more than they would have was there not pill testing there. So, this is the safety net. This is the last chance that the potential consumer of a drug has before consuming that drug.

We know our law-enforcement colleagues do a great job at stopping drugs going into festivals, but in New South Wales, for example, what happens to those drugs that get through? Because there is no safety net there. In the ACT we have a safety net. We have a mechanism to chat one last time to a consumer and to persuade them to do something other than consume their drugs.

Tony Jones: David, Mick Palmer earlier talked about the European examples. There are quite a few of them. Is there any empirical evidence that lives have been saved?

David Calidcott: Well, I think there has been some recent research, for example, from the United Kingdom which suggests that hospital attendances are down at 95%, or down 95% of what they were when pill testing is applied. That’s from our colleagues in the UK. We know, for example, that as long ago as 2002, that festivals where pill testing occurs ,young people at those festivals consume fewer drugs, fewer people consume drugs and they mix their drugs less frequently. Each of those is an independent risk factor for death.

Tony Jones: OK, I’m going to go to Marianne, because you’re into harm minimisation, it’s fair to say. Where do you stand on pill testing, ideologically?

Marianne Jauncey: I think what’s come out is, at the end of the day—and Kerryn you make the point – all of us want to keep our children safe. And as, you know, as a doctor, but as a mum I know that the fear of my children being harmed nearly overwhelms me. But you know, the fear of them using drugs is there. The fear of them not coming home is what keeps us up at night. And so what I think, you know, my service has shown many people and what harm reduction is saying is that we need a fundamental shift, actually, in our approach in this conversation, – one that is not driven by fear and yelling and shouting about the sky falling in, one that is based on the science, because that is to be celebrated, and one that says the idea of a drug-free world much in all as some people might like it, is fanciful, so let’s get our head out of the sand and actually do what doctors are calling for.

And at the end of the day. I think doctors should be the ones making the call about physiology or impact of drugs. And we’ve got the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian Medical Association all unequivocally coming out saying, “There is value in evaluating a trial of pill safety testing. “Why wouldn’t we do that?