T he festival-goers at the Canberra leg of the 2018 Groovin’ the Moo festival made history by being a part of the first pill testing trial in Australia.

Melanie Walker is the CEO of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL) and the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA), two organisations heavily involved in advocating for illicit drug users.

Lewis O’Keefe spoke with her to understand the reason behind the recent pill testing and the benefits of it.

Credit: Melanie Walker

Q: What do AIVL and CAHMA do?

A: “AIVL is the national peak body that represents the state and territory drug user organisations. Those organisations are very diverse, for instance some of them run GP clinics and have a clinical focus, others are smaller activist based groups around health promotion.”

“So there are a diverse group of organisations around the country of which CAHMA is one and CAHMA is the ACT based member organisation of AIVL. So AIVL represents those groups and we advocate for more funding and services for people who use drugs.”

“CAHMA’s role in the ACT is a service delivery organisation; they provide support to people who use drugs and their families, they provide referrals to a whole range of services around the town. They also run the Connection, which is CAHMA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program and it provides comprehensive case management support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT who have problems with alcohol and drugs.”

Q: What’s your role in these organisations?

A: “My role is Chief Executive Officer of AIVL, so I’m the boss of the national peak and we actually auspice the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy as well.”

Q: Do you have a long background in drug policy?

A: “Yes, giving away my age here but yes I do have a long background in drug policy, which goes back to the 1990s. I was a student at the University of Canberra and I did broadcast journalism for a short period. But I became very passionate about the needs of people who use drugs and the needs of their families and their communities. So I diverted from journalism and ended up doing a project for a Queensland senator looking at treatment options for heroin users. From then on I guess you could say I was hooked and I wanted to do drugs policy forever, and also to help people and their families and I felt that this was a better way to do it.”

Q: What are your thoughts on pill testing?

A: “Well pill testing is a really important element of a harm reduction strategy. So the national drug strategy in Australia, back since the Hawke government’s time, has been based on the three pillars of harm minimisation. So the three pillars are harm reduction, demand reduction and supply reduction.”

“Harm reduction is things like pilling testing, needle and syringe programs. Demand reduction is things like drug and alcohol treatment. Supply reduction is focused around interdiction so policing and that sort of stuff. So the three pillars working together provide all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and bring it all together. So its wonderful that we have drug treatment available, but sometimes it takes a while for people to realise that is something they want to engage with and what we want to do n the meantime is keep them safe as possible and to prevent them experiencing a lot of the harms that can go along with illicit drug use, such as blood borne viruses. So harm reduction strategies are an important component of the national drug strategy that is based on the three pillars of harm minimisation.”

“Where pill testing fits is part of that harm reduction pillar. So what we want is for young people to go into festivals and not die and this is a really important part of the strategy to ensure young people are safe. It doesn’t mean you stop trying to advise people to stop using drugs but it means that you take a pragmatic approach; so that when they are using illicit drugs you are reducing the harm and potential harms of associating with that.”

Q: What are you thoughts on the pill testing at Groovin’ the Moo?

A: “Well it’s a wonderful Australian first and I think that the pill testing at Groovin’ the Moo kind of proves the point in the Australian context. There were at least a couple of pills found to have had lethal substances in them that people then discarded. People were able to find out that they had drugs that were not what they thought they were and throw them away before they hurt them. What a wonderful result, it would be great if we could replicate that at every festival around the country.”

“I think what is particularly exciting for the ACT is that the local government has gotten behind this initiative, so I know they will be working with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Council of the ACT (ATODA), to look at what this means for ACT festivals going forward. The government here has taken a very brave step and allowed the first national trial to happen in the ACT, so I guess what does this mean for future festivals in the ACT? Is this something that is going to be implemented going forward given that this trial has been a success and has been shown to have taken dangerous drugs out of the festival environment?”

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