When Will the Rest of Australia Be Able to Test Its Pills?

Pill testing Australia demonstration at CanTEST in Canberra. Image showing a sample of drugs to be tested on a medical machine.

While the Queensland government has become the first state to legalise the testing of illicit drugs, punters across the rest of Australia who want to find out if their party aids contain chemicals that could kill them are being left behind.

The Palaszczuk government announced on February 25 that both mobile and fixed-site pill testing services will soon become available in the state following changes its to drug possession laws.

The government said that the plan would aim at “changing the behaviour of users and reduce the risk of harm from drug use.”

Queensland’s Health Minister, Yvette D’Ath, said that testing would “inform people what chemical substances are in their drugs.”

“We know people make better decisions when they are equipped with unbiased information,” she said.

“We have had coronial inquests in Australia that have recommended drug testing, but very few jurisdictions have done it.”

Recommendations for the legalisation of pill testing, which can be done rapidly and limit the accidental use of potentially lethal substances, have previously been made by medical and legal bodies in various states and territories across Australia.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) welcomed the announcement and called 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.”

“Every time festival season comes around in particular, we learn of young people with their whole lives ahead of them dropping dead from overdoses. It doesn’t need to be this way,” RACGP’s President and Queensland-based GP Dr Nicole Higgins has said.

So far, however, only the Australian Capital Territory has allowed the practice, with an announcement in January that a trial of their pill-testing programme would continue until at least August of this year.

Here’s where the other states and territories stand on pill testing.

Pill Testing NSW

NSW has arguably had the most turbulent public clashes over pill testing of any jurisdiction in Australia. In 2018, the Berejiklian government commissioned a $10.8 million inquiry into the use of methamphetamine in the state. The ‘Ice Inquiry’ came back with 109 recommendations in early 2020 to make drug use and the problems associated with it better.

Off the bat, the government rejected five of the proposals, including pill testing. They then took two years to respond in full to the enquiry, eventually accepting 86 of the recommendations and ‘noting’ 14 of them. A $500 million investment in health and justice reforms was made as part of the response in September of last year.

However, pill testing and decriminalisation of low-level drug possession were not part of the recommendations accepted.

“I disagree with decriminalisation,” Premier Dominic Perrottet said at the time.

With an election in the state looming, it seems unlikely that the current government will shift its perspective anytime soon. The NSW Labor Leader, Chis Minns. has said that the state needs a “drug summit” and has promised to “bring the experts together” over drug law reform if elected, but he hasn’t commented publically on pill testing specifically

It’s worth mentioning that previous NSW Labor leaders have committed to trialling pill testing in the past.

Pill Testing VIC

Victoria is another state that has long grappled with the issue of pill testing. Multiple medical and legal bodies have called on the Andrews government to at least trial the services in the state, but Labor has held firm on rejecting the idea.

In 2019, Melbourne City Council supported draft legislation by the Greens to trial pill testing at music festivals, which the Victorian ambulance union also supported.

In 2021, a Victorian coroner investigating the deaths of five young men who consumed drugs they thought were MDMA or magic mushrooms, called on the government to implement the service.

“The evidence available to me supports a finding that there is broad support for a drug checking service and drug early warning network as evidence-based interventions, at least among those with knowledge and expertise in harm minimisation,” said the coroner Paresa Spanos.

More recently, the Victorian Greens renewed their calls for a pill-testing trial in mid-February after the health department issued an urgent warning over pills containing the dangerous substance pentylone. Several people required emergency treatment after consuming drugs containing pentylone.

VIC’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, responded by saying that he thought the whole concept of pill testing was “flawed” and “essentially sending a green light message to people.”

“I’ve got no plans to be introducing that. That’s a longstanding position,” he said.

“I’ve been very clear about this longstanding position for 20 years. There are no safe levels at which these drugs can be used. No test will make these drugs safe for anybody.”

Although the above statement is factually inaccurate, unless there is a shift in government in Victoria, it’s unlikely that pill testing will be a legal reality in the state any time soon.

Pill Testing SA

Pill testing in South Australia has not had as much traction as it has in other states. The new Labor government, elected last year, was consistent over not supporting pill testing in the lead-up to the election and has not since changed its stance.

When the ACT launched its drug testing trial, other states and territories were called on to do the same, and SA was no different. Greens MP Robert Simms led the charge in SA and found an unlikely ally in the form of Police Commissioner Grant Stevens.

Stevens, who told ABC Radio Adelaide last year that he does not advocate the practice, said that if it was enabled, it should be available to everyone, not just festival-goers.

“I don’t want to create a false sense of safety within the community that it’s okay to take drugs … I’m saying if there’s going to be a policy shift … It should be properly thought through,” he said.

In opposition, Labor said that they would support a review of drug policy in the state. However, rather than relaxing its laws, the government announced a new policy this month stating that any driver who tests positive for drugs will immediately lose their licence.

SA Health Minister Chris Picton also rejected making changes that would keep people who use drugs safer. In July of 2022, he said that the government “does not support” pill testing.

“We released and are now implementing a comprehensive policy regarding illicit drugs that involve more rehabilitation beds and more support to families of drug users,” Piction said.

Pill Testing TAS

Despite attempts by the Tasmanian Greens to introduce legislation that would legalise the practice, pill testing in Tasmania also looks like a dead end unless there are significant government changes.

In 2018, Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff tabled a Bill that would protect people having their drugs tested from being prosecuted. However, the Bill was rejected by Parliament, with the Liberal government at the time saying that “no drugs are safe.” They doubled down on this position in 2019, stating that the government “will not support drug testing.”

TAS Police Minister Michael Ferguson said at the time that it is “reckless” to suggest drug use can be made safer.

“The Government will not introduce any amnesty or special arrangements for those caught with illegal drugs at Dark MOFO or any other event,” he said, referring to the popular arts festival in Hobart.

After winning a third term in 2021, it’s unlikely the Liberal’s stance will shift. In that year, following calls from the Greens and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and other Drugs Council of Tasmania to introduce the practice, a government spokesperson said that pill testing is “not something the Tasmanian Government supports at this time.”

Pill Testing WA

It’s a familiar story over in Western Australia. The long-standing Premier, Mark McGowan, remains steadfast in his belief that pill testing is a bad idea. McGowan has even gone as far as to say that pill testing “could actually risk lives,” ignoring medical advice and the latest evidence.

In 2019, McGowan told 6PR Radio that legalising pill testing would essentially be sanctioning illicit drug use and sending the wrong message.

“I’ve read a lot of the materials around it, if I genuinely thought it would save lives, I’d say it was a good idea, but I don’t,” he said.

In 2022, following offers from the CanTEST drug-testing organisation in Canberra to provide the same services in other states, the McGowan government again rejected the idea, saying that they have “no plans to introduce pill testing in Western Australia at this time.”

However, this language is notably less forceful than earlier statements and they added that they are “continuing to monitor emerging pill-testing research, including the outcomes of the ACT’s pill-testing pilot.”

WA is also the site of much drug policy research, with studies conducted by Edith Cowan University finding that pill-testing does not increase drug intake at a festival and that, separately, those who were told their drugs could contain a dangerous substance generally disposed of them. This work, however, appears not to be currently influencing government policy.

Pill Testing NT

The Northern Territory has been at the centre of recent drug policy debates. This is because the territory repealed liquor licencing in parts of Alice Springs and the surrounding communities which has been the source of a lot of controversy. As such, it’s unlikely that more progressive drug policies will be a high priority for the NT Labor Government.

A 2022 survey found that those in the NT were the least likely to support pill testing across the country, although the policy still has a majority in favour, at 54%. The national average is 57%, while those in the ACT are the most in favour, at 70%.

The most obvious start for a pill-testing trial in the NT would be at the territory’s largest dance music festival, Bass in the Grass. In 2021, there was a push by the Association of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies NT for the government to allow testing at the site.

The Northern Territory’s Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, said at the time that he was open to the idea but ultimately it did not go ahead due to legal logistical issues. There have been no developments since.

Tangentially, in 2022, the Gunner Government killed a motion that would have required politicians and their staff to submit for random drug testing following allegations that Labor’s youth wing leader had taken cocaine which was captured in a video circulated on Snapchat. Perhaps they’re just trying to be consistent.

Will Australia Get National Pill Testing?

Drug policy is largely a matter for states and territories to set and enforce. While the evidence above suggests that there is little chance of change on the horizon, new evidence could shift that. Notably, the language used by some state spokespeople in more recent statements points to the idea that state governments are taking note of the evidence as it emerges and that changes are not entirely being ruled out.

What’s more, the upcoming election in NSW could be a key opportunity for drug policy changes, as Australia’s most populous state has long been at the centre of the pill-testing debate, having tragically suffered a number of drug overdose deaths in recent years. If NSW were to move on this, other states would start to look increasingly regressive in their stance.

And Australia is now at the forefront of at least one area of progressive drug policy, with the new shift toward the legalisation of psychedelic therapy. For years, that idea seemed like a pipedream, however, when the evidence becomes too clear to ignore, policy change does eventually happen — eventually.

With the ACT having led the charge, and Queensland now following suit, shifts in policy might come from unexpected places as the pile of evidence continues to build.

As it currently stands, that evidence tells us that drug testing is a viable means of informing people who use drugs about the chemicals they are choosing to take and helping them to make safer choices.

Related: How Australia’s First Government Pill Testing Service Actually Works

Related: Apparently, Some People Smoke Weed: Grace Tame and the Normalisation of Cannabis

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.