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Pill Testing this Summer

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 14 November 2019

Tags: Pill Testing, Drug Policy, Coronial Inquest

Pill Testing this Summer: Full Debate, 14 November, 2019


Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That the House take note of the following matter: pill testing this summer.

The findings of the New South Wales coronial inquest into the deaths of six young people have been handed down last week. The Deputy Coroner, Harriet Grahame, has written a long and considered judgment that makes incredibly important findings and very specific recommendations about what needs to be done to prevent deaths, such as these young peoples', in future.

The inquest examined the deaths of six people and we need to know the names of these people and a little bit about their stories because these represent a cross-section of young people in the community. They are the real stories of preventable deaths and harm related to taking substances, which have led to deaths at music festivals without the proper interventions of pill testing and the other things that the coroner has recommended, and I will come to those other things shortly.

Six young people, Nathan Tran, Diana Nguyen, Joseph Pham, Callum Brosnan, Joshua Tam, and Alexandra Ross-King, died during music festivals in New South Wales during a 13month period from December 2017 until January 2019, and five of them died within a five-month period, over the last summer in New South Wales. This was a terrible and preventable loss of life. They had toxic levels of MDMA in their blood and each death was completely unexpected and profoundly tragic.

All of those six people were gifted, vibrant, very well connected and very much loved by their families and friends. Their deaths at such a young age, the beginning of a whole life, was a terrible loss for the whole community. The Coroner makes the point that she has no doubt, from what she heard, that each would have gone on to make many contributions in their own clever, generous and productive ways. They did come from different cultural and geographic backgrounds and communities and every family involved spoke very strongly and with a lot of courage throughout the inquest.

Why this inquest is so important is because it has drawn together in extensive detail a vast body of evidence about the life saving benefits of pill testing, formerly known as medically supervised drug analysis, at music festivals. The pill testing interventions have been trialled at festivals in Australia, in the ACT, twice at Groovin the Moo festival, and at many festivals overseas in Europe, the UK and North America. These trials demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that they save lives, reduce harm, increase young people's understanding about the dangers of illicit drug use and the way that they need to reduce harm and keep themselves safe.

We now have an important piece of work that the Deputy Coroner has provided in her judgment, which provides some incredibly strong statements about the evidence of reducing harm and what needs to happen. Her first recommendation was that the New South Wales Government needs to run front-of-house medically supervised pill testing or drug checking at music festivals in New South Wales starting this summer. That is the important point.

That is why we are talking about this summer today, because there is no excuse not to act now. There is no excuse to talk about a trial any longer. The Coroner is clear that there is no need for a trial. There can be a pilot to investigate the best mechanisms for making medically supervised pill testing available. Trials have been done. Trials have produced the evidence. It is incontrovertible that they save lives and they will keep young people like Alex, Nathan, Joshua, Diana, Callum and Alex alive and they will make music festivals the enjoyable and joyous space that festival organisers and all participants want them to be and, speaking as a parent, that parents want them to be.

What is so extraordinary about where we are in Tasmania and Australia is the support from the community for pill testing, amazing support. In Tasmania, as well as the Tasmanian branches of each of these bodies, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australasian College of General Practitioners, the Australian College of Emergency Medicine, Rural Doctors Association, Australian Medical Association and the ANMF - I hope the Deputy Premier will be able to explain to Tasmanians how he will be introducing pill testing this summer.

Time expired.

Mr ROCKLIFF (Braddon - Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing) - Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank the member, Dr Woodruff, for raising the matter of public importance today. There can be no denying that the testing of drugs at music festivals is a very complex issue about which there are many competing views, and many competing views among those in the medical profession and experts within this field. Of course you want to reduce the harm from drugs and prevent loss of life but there is no one simple solution, which is also something that came through in New South Wales Deputy Coroner Harriet Grahame's inquest. As a government we have put a strong focus on harm minimisation and keeping Tasmanians safe. As we have repeatedly said and it remains the same today, there is no safe use of any illicit drug, which is why we do not support pill testing or drug checking. We are doing what we can to minimise the use of drugs through the right mix of justice and preventative initiatives so we can reduce harm right across our community. The state's Department of Health, Tasmanian Health Service and Alcohol and Drug Service do a remarkable job with a group of very dedicated, hardworking individuals across a wide variety of areas.

On Monday this week I opened the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs conference. This was attended by almost 600 health and associated professionals from around the country and overseas. In my discussions with some of them I learnt that while the medical scientific evidence does not support drug checking, clearly an ongoing discussion is also needed. Instead, drug and alcohol counselling is an essential component of any such drug-checking service and the emphasis should shift to well-supported counselling services and appropriately resourced medical tents. There were a number of presentations around the conference area, and if my memory serves me correctly, research from the University of South Australia suggested that the evidence was not yet in when it comes to drug checking and the benefits of it.

Testing services indicating an illegal drug is free of certain contaminants can send a very confusing and risky message to young people, which is why this a complex issue. We have always said as a government that we are prepared to listen to people's views, for and against, and consider any evidence put forward. That is why the Premier, myself, the Minister for Health and the minister for Police met with Pill Testing Australia, along with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Council of Tasmania in September. We were also joined at that meeting by the Tasmanian Police Commissioner, Darren Hine. While this is an issue which relates to health and wellbeing, there is also a law and order element as well. Members of our community could justifiably ask how can you on one hand check a drug and then hand it back knowing it is an illegal substance and could do that person harm?

The New South Wales Deputy Coroner's report released last Friday is informative but it is also sad. It is deeply sad reading of the last moments of the lives of the six individuals. Nathan Tran, 18 years of age, had aspirations to join the police force; Diana Nguyen, 21, was engaged to be married; Joseph Pham, 23, was studying to be a teacher; Callum Brosnan, 19, deferred a place at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to work with children and disabilities; Joshua Tam, 22, worked in his grandfather's body corporate management business; and Alex Ross-King, 19 years of age, worked in the family's butcher shop. They were young people who were at a music festival and chose to take an illegal substance.

Dr Woodruff - But minister, that's why they need to be educated. They need support.


Mr ROCKLIFF - To their families, I extend my deepest condolences - introducing a very human element to a very complex debate.

Dr Woodruff - I know, but the point is we can act now.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order, the member has made her contribution. I ask her to let the minister make his.

Mr ROCKLIFF - The Government notes the New South Wales Deputy Coroner's report into the music festival deaths, which was very detailed.

Ms O'Connor - Dr Woodruff is passionate about saving young lives.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We are all passionate about saving lives.

Dr Woodruff - Well, you know what to do. You are responsible if something happens this summer in Tasmania.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Dr Woodruff, I ask you to keep it quieter, please.

Mr ROCKLIFF - We will take the time to read the report in line with our commitment to listen and consider any evidence put forward. We note that there is other important information that should also be considered. In particular, the independent review by the Australian National University which is yet to be released.

As highlighted in the New South Wales Deputy Coroner's report, education also plays an important role and we need to consider carefully what alcohol and drug education is offered to young people and their families. We have said before that it is important that all state and territory governments have the time to carefully review all the findings. It is not as simple as pill testing or drug checking. There are many more complex areas that we can investigate and act on in a policy sense.

I respect medical scientific evidence and the evidence, in the Government's view, is not there. We recognise that this is not only a medical scientific issue. It is a health, social and very important educational issue as well. We do not support drug checking. The Government has a very firm position on this. We are also listening to evidence and other views that may well be presented down the track, such as the work being completed by the ANU. As a parent of three soon-to-be teenage daughters, I recognise that we need to create a very safe environment. We want our young kids to have a great time and we want them to be safe while having a very good time and enjoying life, as a young person should.

Time expired.

Ms HADDAD (Clark) - Madam Deputy Speaker, I also add my sincere condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of the six young people around whom the New South Wales Coroner's findings considered. Their deaths are a tragedy. The system has failed those families and those young people. Any drug death is a tragedy and indeed any drug death in Australia is an avoidable death. It is important in the context of a motion like this today to acknowledge that and also to acknowledge that much more can be done by government to avoid drug deaths and to reduce the stigma and the discrimination faced by people who use drugs.

It is a much wider issue than just pill testing. The stigma and discrimination faced by people who use drugs, particularly those who find themselves in very complex life situations, is intense. The Chamber has heard me make these comments before, but I am someone who has worked in the alcohol and drug sector and worked on harm-minimisation policy and issues around stigma and discrimination faced by people who use drugs and access drug treatment services. There is always more that can be done.

Specifically with regard to this motion, Labor understands and supports harm-minimisation policy and evidence-based policy. We will always stand up for an evidenced-based policy position. We always research and consult and understand evidence-based policy. That is what Labor does to engage on this issue. We have met with Harm Reduction Australia, Pill Testing Australia, alcohol and drug peak bodies, alcohol and drug service providers, service organisations and festival organisers. That is what the party does when we are looking for an evidence base.

Members interjecting.


Ms HADDAD - This is the work of government and it cannot happen without government support. Indeed Pill Testing Australia has said that this cannot and will not happen here in this state without the support of the government of the day.

Ms O'Connor interjecting.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order. I ask all members to give the member courtesy of listening to what she has to say, please.

Ms O'Connor - We did not expect the gambling bill to be brought on two days after it was tabled.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Ms O'Connor, you can make your contribution soon.

Ms HADDAD - I have met with Gino Vumbaca, the CEO of Harm Reduction Australia and Pill Testing Australia -

Members interjecting.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order. The member is making a contribution. I ask the other members to show courtesy, please.

Ms HADDAD - It would be good to show courtesy because a lot of people in this place make assumptions about Labor's position on things -

Dr Woodruff - We know that you've got no backbone.

Ms HADDAD - and when it comes to something like this, you have listened to nothing I have said. I have heard you interjecting the whole time.

Dr Woodruff - Ms Haddad, all you need to do is to stand up and say you support pill testing this summer. That is all you need to do.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order, Dr Woodruff.

Ms HADDAD - There will be a press release saying -

Dr Woodruff - Nothing, which is what Labor usually says on this.

Ms HADDAD - Rosalie, this is really disappointing. I have been putting Labor's position on the record but you have not been listening.

Dr Woodruff - But it's hopeless.

Ms O'Connor - Okay, what is Labor's position?

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order, Dr Woodruff, you have already made your contribution. The Greens will have another opportunity. The member has a little over three minutes, so I ask that everyone gives her the courtesy of listening to what she has to say, thank you.

Ms HADDAD - Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is hard for me to listen to those in the Chamber make politics out of this issue. I do not usually share personal stories on issues like this but I have lost loved ones to drug overdoses in my life. I have lost close family members to drug overdose in my life and I do have firm views on these things and I advocate for those firm views, but this is -

Dr Woodruff - And you don't win.

Ms HADDAD - That is so offensive. You go on the attack at every opportunity but I know that my -

Ms OGILVIE - Point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is very difficult to hear what is going on with the number of interjections.

Ms HADDAD - Thank you to the member for Clark. The Greens can read my comments on Hansard because I will run out of time otherwise. I have read the coroner's report and my sympathies go to those families. I understand this policy area very well. What is very clear from our meetings with Pill Testing Australia and Harm Reduction Australia is that they cannot and will not come to this state with their equipment without the support of the government of the day. That has been said publicly by Gino Vumbaca, who is the CEO of both those organisations. It has also been said publicly by Alison Lai, the CEO of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council of Tasmania. She said that a trial could happen without legislative change but that government support was essential to create the necessary environment and procedures to operate the pill testing station as a health service without concern for consequences from law enforcement.

Labor can do all that we can in developing this policy, listening to the evidence, researching the evidence and speaking to those affected, which includes ourselves, but it needs the support of this Government for anything to happen. This is the work of government. A motion passed in this place will not result in the implementation of pill testing this summer. It is disingenuous for anybody to say otherwise. That is our position: this is the work of government and the Labor Party's position on it is clear.

Ms O'Connor - It is the work of the parliament.

Ms HADDAD - It is not the work of parliament. This Government will ignore motions passed in this House and have done since we have been in this place since the last election. They have routinely ignored motions passed in this place. It is disingenuous and it is quite horrifying to the public who are engaged in this issue to be given false hope that a motion passed in this place, gaining Labor support or otherwise, would implement pill testing this summer in Australia. It would not and I have made that position perfectly clear.

Dr Woodruff - That is quite a long seven minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Ms HADDAD - It has been made clear by Gino Vumbaca that he cannot and he will not bring his equipment to Tasmania. There is simply too much risk for him. It is very expensive equipment and he will not bring it to this state and risk seizure by police or other law enforcement officials without the support of the government of the day. This is the work of government.

Time expired.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER - Just for the matter of Hansard, because I listened to what Dr Woodruff had to say. It is timed for seven minutes exactly. You had seven minutes, the member had seven minutes. Everyone will be allowed seven minutes. I take offence at the insinuation that the member was given extra time. I call Mr Tucker.

Mr TUCKER (Lyons) - Madam Deputy Speaker, the safety of our young people is absolutely paramount to the Hodgman Government. We have a simple message: there is no such thing as a safe tablet or illicit drug. This is why the Government opposes pill testing. It gives people a false sense of security, because how one person reacts to a drug is very different from another person. Unfortunately, we have seen people lose their lives by taking what is a pure substance, a pure drug. We need festival organisers to step up and help us stem the supply of drugs at the gate. Anyone who runs a business on public land has a duty of care to ensure that patrons will be safe. Pill testing is a very complex health and law enforcement issue. If there are other ways of raising awareness and educating young people or any other evidence about pill testing then the Government is open to listening. We are prepared to listen to people's views, both for and against pill testing. However, I want to be clear this Government does not support the illegal drug industry that destroys families and young lives. We will not run a quality assurance regime using taxpayers' dollars to prop up drug dealers' businesses.

Taking drugs is playing Russian roulette with our young lives. Young people make mistakes and they do not deserve to lose their lives after taking one of these drugs. The very proponents of pill testing, including clinicians and toxicologists who are the real experts in this field, have themselves admitted the following flaws and potential dangers of pill testing:

the system relies on the voluntary cooperation of users;

people only submit a small sample for testing. They may have other drugs in their possession of varying make, meaning the results are haphazard at best;

substances can have wildly different effects on people based on their physiology and whether they have consumed other drugs or alcohol at the same time; and

there is absolutely no obligation to discard the pill, regardless of the results.

Education and rehabilitation is the path that the Hodgman Government will be taking, in conjunction with the law enforcement effect, to protect our young people and our communities. In relation to the report by the New South Wales Coroner, I know the Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing has personally read the report. The Government respects all coronial inquiries and reports. We respect the Coroner's position but we do not agree. As the report notes, there is a need to closely examine decriminalising the personal use of drugs to reduce harm, as the report states.

Nor do we agree that pill testing is the panacea to drug deaths and we are yet to see the independent report by the Australian National University into findings from the ACT pill testing trial in April.

The Government's focus is on keeping Tasmanians safe which is why we are doing what we can to minimise the use of drugs through the right mix of justice and preventative initiatives so we can reduce harm right across the community. We provide resourcing for a range of programs and organisations in this space, organisations who work to improve community understanding of the dangers of illicit drugs and support Tasmanians living with drug dependency issues. These include, for example, the Drug and Alcohol Foundation, the Drug Education Network, the Salvation Army, City Mission and a range of other service providers.

We will continue to work across government on reducing the impact and harms associated with drug use, not decriminalise it as the Greens and Labor want us to do. What we have heard from Labor on this issue is nothing. No position. You are all over the place. Let me quote from the newspaper article this year, The Australian, 27 August 2019:

I am still yet to be convinced that there is sufficient evidence that this as a harm minimisation approach is going to be effective.

Rebecca White said on radio in March:

We want to make sure it can be done in a way that is safe and that does not lead to adverse outcomes and does not create an environment for something such as the pushing of illegal drugs on young people.

The Deputy Opposition Leader, Ms O'Byrne, had a novel approach to fence-sitting yesterday when asked about pill testing. She said in The Examiner:

This cannot be about Labor's position. It has to be about what the Government intends to do.

We have not changed. We do not support it. Back in March, Ms White said on radio that she was still yet to be convinced about pill testing but Labor's platform supports it. Labor is nowhere. You are absolutely all over the place.

Finally, I will quote Winstock, Wolff and Ramsey from the Internal Medicine Journal, November 2016:

Pill testing of any description does not guarantee safety or protect the consumer against individual responses to pills. At best it gives an artificial shine of safety for a group of drugs.

Time expired.

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, apart from Dr Woodruff's contribution today and some aspects of what Ms Haddad said, there has been a dangerous level of ignorance, of complacency and hand wringing on the issue of drug checking or pill testing in here today.

What I say to members like Mr Tucker who has resumed his seat, like Mr Rockliff who knows this is good policy, like Ms Haddad who has had to endure - and knowing it is good policy - with a leader who will not stand by the Labor Party's own policy, if you will not listen to us, listen to your young adult children. Listen to the experts. The story is very similar. Young people will tell you that it does not matter how much checking there is at festivals, they will find all sorts of creative ways to get alcohol and other illicit substances into festivals. I have spoken to a young person who was going to a festival with MDMA tablets in their shoe, saw a police sniffer dog and swallowed all the tablets, putting their life at risk. This is what young people are capable of doing.

Apart from the old fuddy-duddies in here, some of whom are not much more than 40, all of us have made mistakes in our lives. All of us have experimented in one way or another when we were young, when we thought we were bulletproof.

Listen to young people. It does not matter. They do not listen to us when we say, 'just say no, do not take illicit drugs, do not have sex before marriage' and rubbish like that, the sex before marriage bit. They do not listen to us, because they are young people and they are making up their own minds and they are experimenting with life. 'Just say no' is bad policy, it is dangerous policy, it is lethal policy. It means you do not have good harm minimisation measures like pill testing in place.

Even if you are deaf to young people and the truths they will tell you, I will follow up on the list of expert organisations who back-in drug checking or pill testing at festivals: the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the National Australian Pharmacy Students Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the Ambulance Union State Council, the Public Health Association of Australia, Family Drug Support Australia and the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

At the local level, it is backed by Tasmanian community organisations including the Youth Network of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and Community Legal Centres of Tasmania.

That list of people is not a list of radicals who want to push drugs on young people. They are hard-nosed experts who have put the health and wellbeing of young people over a blinkered ideology, an ideology that is threatening young people's lives.

Six young people died in New South Wales as a result of taking unsafe pills. I am certain that a number of their parents would have told them, 'don't take drugs' but those kids are dead. We still do not have in this country a proper regime for making sure we are treating this as a health issue, putting ideology aside and instituting a pill-testing regime that puts the protection of young lives first. It is shameful.

We expect this kind of ignorance from the Liberal Party, but the moral equivocation we get from Labor on this issue is revolting. It is Labor Party policy to support pill testing. We brought in legislation last year that would have enacted a safe trial for pill testing. Labor voted against it. Labor uses the excuse that if the Government does not support it, why should they? We had the Leader of the Opposition go on radio after that effort and say she was not convinced, she was worried about it. Totally deaf to the evidence. If health is your number-one priority you put the health of young people first and you back in a safe pill-testing regime. You protect their lives. You do not play politics with their lives on this issue. You are doing that. You are disgraceful.

Ruth Forrest brought in a motion upstairs, a straightforward motion. We are talking about a nurse and a midwife, Ruth Forrest, sensible, no radical. You could not even back that in. If you had stood by your principle and your policy on this issue we would have a pill-testing trial in Tasmania. You could have backed in our legislation last year and the House could have passed it. You could have brought in legislation. We would have backed you in, the Speaker probably would have backed you in, and it would have gone upstairs. If your people had stood by their policy up there we would have legislation that instituted a pill-testing trial in Tasmania.

Dr Woodruff and I get extremely passionate about this issue because we believe in looking at the evidence and standing by your principles. You should hang your heads in shame. You are playing politics with kids' lives. Parliament makes the rules, not government. When are you going to get that through your heads? We have a finely balanced parliament in here that can make a real difference in the lives of young people. You have abrogated your responsibility to those young people. You could draft legislation and bring it in here and we would back you in and protect those kids, but we will go into this festival season with no protections in place for our kids. It is a shameful abrogation of the responsibility of every member of this place to put the protection of young people first.