Council divided on pill testing

By David Schout

The City of Melbourne has voted in favour of a pill testing trial at music festivals within the city, at odds with the state government and Victoria Police. 

In a rare divided debate at a recent meeting, councillors voted 7-3 in favour of advocating for the trial which would test possibly harmful and even fatal drugs to alert potential users.

And while the council’s stance has no direct impact on policy, proponents hope it might change minds about the contentious issue.

The City of Melbourne hosts some of the state’s largest music festivals, at venues such as the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Melbourne Showgrounds.

The number of drug-related ambulance attendances within the city in the past five years has more than doubled.

Councillors in favour of the trial were at pains to point out their endorsement of the trial did not validate illicit drug use, but rather aimed to save lives.

“This is about providing people with information that they otherwise mightn’t have,” Cr Rohan Leppert said.

“If a pill has an element in it that is unexpected … if that information is able to be relayed to someone, then the chances of someone taking that drug has suddenly gone from very, very likely to very, very unlikely.”

“The reason I’m so passionately in favour of supporting this and conducting a pill trial in Victoria is that the evidence overseas suggests it will lead to less harm, fewer deaths, but no commensurate increase in the acceptability of taking those drugs.”

A report tabled at council said evidence from pill testing trials in Europe suggested it was an effective way to change behaviour, reduce harm and inform the public.

Further, the report considered Australia’s first pill testing facility trial last year – at Canberra’s Groovin’ the Moo festival – a “resounding success”.

Cr Nicholas Reece said it was clear that alternative solutions to the growing issue had not worked.

“What do I know? I know that the drug policy of saying to people ‘just say no’ is not working,” he said.

“We’ve got to try something new and I think a trial of this is a small step but one that is worth doing.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the evidence was irrefutable and “we can’t stick our heads in the sand”.

But other councillors were staunchly against a trial within the municipality, backing the state government and Victoria Police to reject a pilot scheme.

“This is aiding and abetting. It is an idealistic stance that is not consistent with the law,” Cr Beverley Pinder said.

“I really do think this needs to be thrashed out in the chambers at Spring St and police headquarters. That’s really the place for it.”

Cr Philip Le Liu went as far as to say vote in favour would be “supporting the drug trade”, and said reverting to traditional methods was the answer.

“A trial leads to full testing. Even though that might be seen as a small step, it is still a big one, because it seems we are putting the stamp of approval on it,” he said.

“There are ways we can say that you don’t actually need drugs to enjoy the music. Do you really need to take a drug? I think fundamentally you can go, ‘just don’t take it’.”

The City of Melbourne isn’t the only Victorian council to call for the trial, with the City of Port Phillip doing so back in 2017.

The City of Hobart and City of Sydney have also supported a trial, in line with many bodies within the health community. 

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