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Soft on drugs or reducing harm: Debate ignites on plan to offer illicit pill testing

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One of the nation’s peak doctors’ bodies has called on other states and territories to introduce illicit pill testing to “save lives” after Queensland unveiled plans for a trial.

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The Palaszczuk Government at the weekend announced plans to have at least one drug-checking trial site running within six months in a bid to reduce avoidable deaths.

The move comes days after the government tabled legislation aimed at decriminalising illicit drug possession and five years after drug-checking was first trialled at a Canberra music festival.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has backed the pill-testing plan, calling on other state and territory leaders to do so to “save lives”.

RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins says people will take illicit drugs despite the risks so governments should try to minimise harm, “not stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise”.

“Every time festival season comes around in particular, we learn of young people with their whole lives ahead of them dropping dead from overdoses,” she said in a statement on Monday.

“It doesn’t need to be this way; we can look at what has worked overseas and in the ACT and save lives.

“From what has occurred in other jurisdictions, we know that many people who submit drugs for testing don’t take them when they find out what they actually contain.

“Prevention is better than punitive action. A ‘war on drugs’ mindset gets us nowhere. I call on our nation’s leaders to follow the lead of the ACT and now Queensland and introduce fixed and mobile pill-testing sites to save lives.”

Higgins said staff at pill-testing sites could talk to people about their drug use and the issues they faced “free of judgement”.

RACGP vice president and Queensland chair Dr Bruce Willett called the state government’s plan “a victory for common sense and evidence-based policy” over punitive and ideological approaches to illicit drugs.

“This is not about condoning drug use and it does not remove police powers related to illicit drugs. Rather, it’s about reducing harm,” he said.

“I encourage all people who use drugs to take full advantage of the fixed and mobile pill-testing sites. It could save your life.”

However, Queensland opposition health spokeswoman Ros Bates, a registered nurse, said the move was “soft on drugs” and pointed to a suggestion from NSW Police that pill testing gave users false confidence about safety.

State Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said she was very confident critics would not find evidence that drug-checking led to increased use.

After music festival trials in 2018 and 2019, the ACT became the first jurisdiction to sanction a fixed pill-testing site last year when CANTest opened.

Victoria and NSW have resisted pushes to roll out approved testing sites despite multiple coronial inquests into drug-related festival deaths recommending the measure.

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