Despite repeated drug related incidents occurring for many years at music festivals across the country, some of them fatal, governments of all persuasions have continued to prioritise a punitive supply reduction strategy for festivals. More often than not, governments have increased the number of sniffer dogs and police presence, despite the lack of evidence for, anecdotal or otherwise, to support the effectiveness of this approach in reducing the prevalence of drug use or drug related harms occurring, and some evidence that an increased police presence including sniffer dog operations could increase harms (NSW Ombudsman, 2006).
Even as families, festival goers, promoters, as well as public health and law enforcement officials, were becoming more concerned with the continuing drug-related incidents occurring at festivals, governments have continued to resist calls for pill testing as a harm reduction intervention.
Agitation for change has been emerging across the wider community reflected by significant discussion of the issues by the media and in particular social media.
Some political organisations such as the Greens Party and the Reason Party, and some individual members of parliaments from all parties, including the Liberal and Labor parties, have called for change that prioritises health outcomes over a law and order approach. The impact of strong vocal support from family groups such as Family Drug Support and people attending festivals also cannot be underestimated.
Within this growing push for change, the STA-SAFE consortium was conceived and began its efforts to introduce pill testing, as a harm reduction intervention, in Australia – an intervention based on the best evidence and experience available internationally, as well as local insight.
The model developed by the consortium was a front-of-house service with a strong level of medical, health and peer representation in both direction and delivery.
After a number of delayed starts at festivals in Canberra, the STA-SAFE consortium was able to secure the strong and publicly announced support of the ACT government, including ACT health and police, the University of Canberra (the venue where the GTM festival was being held), and the GTM promoters (Cattleyard), for a pilot of pill testing at the 29 April 2018 GTM festival in Canberra.
The introduction of an officially sanctioned pill testing harm reduction service in Australia has taken over a decade of commitment (Camilleri and Caldicott, 2005).
In conducting the pilot no funds were requested or provided by the ACT government, or any other government, for the development or delivery of the service. The pilot was completely self-funded by members of the consortium and their supporters along with significant pro-bono assistance provided by legal and other professionals.