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'Shouldn't we take the steps that improve the safety of young people who use drugs?' - ABC RADIO TRIPLE J HACK, Tuesday 1 May 2018




SUBJECTS: Pill-testing at music festivals.


TOM TILLEY: Craig Kelly is a government MP who's spoken out against pill-testing, and Lisa Singh is a Labor MP who has spoken out for pill-testing. Lisa, thank-you for joining us and Craig, thank-you for joining us.


CRAIG KELLY MP, LIBERAL MEMBER FOR HUGHES: You know, great to be with you.




TILLEY: I'll go to you first Craig. Are you still against pill-testing even though it stopped two people taking a drug contaminated with a substance that's known to cause deadly overdoses?

KELLY: Firstly, my concern with the pill-testing is that it sends what I think is the wrong message that we need to be getting out. If we say the government is going to authorise pill-testing, it creates the impression that there is such a thing as a "good" batch of drugs. The message I believe we've got to be getting out to young people is that every batch is a bad batch. Every single batch of drugs of MDA is likely to cause you harm. There's no such thing as a good batch. My concern is that we may benefit on the one hand, but will actually have a lot more adverse consequences by giving the encouragement and the green light to greater use of drugs in our community and society.

TILLEY: But we know young people are going to take drugs anyway.

KELLY: I don't think that's exactly true. I think there's a lot of young people that actually say 'No' to drugs.

TILLEY: There are, but we've had this same approach for years and years where we make it illegal. We police them, but people still take them.

KELLY: You are right. People do still take drugs. And I believe the position that we need to take in our society is that we've got to get the message across clearly to people that these things will do you harm. If you want to take them, and you understand the harm that they cause to you – well, it's illegal, that's the decision that you make. But by going down the pill-testing route, by saying that this is actually a good batch of drugs – I believe that it will actually result in an increase in drugs and increase in greater rate of deaths and greater harm to our society.

TILLEY: Lisa, what do you make of that argument?

SINGH: Tom, Craig, there is absolutely no evidence to say that pill-testing leads to a greater use of drugs or indeed says that they're a good batch. In fact, if they are a good batch or a bad batch, shouldn't they be tested to see if that's the case? I think that's what we saw on the weekend. We saw unusual and lethal substances found in pills at that festival, and that shows that a trial is worthwhile. The fact that after those pills were tested, those young people abandoned taking those drugs and indeed were educated in the process shows that the harm minimisation that comes through pill-testing and results in education can actually lead to a reduction in drug-taking, not an increase. I think Craig, if you are supportive of harm minimisation – and I know you are, I know you are supportive of the Portuguese model in fact – then that contradicts you not supporting pill-testing at festivals like these. And when you've got people like former AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer coming out in support of this. When you've got law enforcement in the ACT coming out in support of this – they're on the ground, they know what's going on with drug users – then I think we've got to listen to them. 

TILLEY: OK, you're listening to Triple J's Hack program. We're talking to two federal politicians on either side of the pill-testing debate. It's a very interesting time to have it because of the first trial ever at a major festival in Australia on the weekend. Now Lisa you mentioned there's a Portuguese model and you said Criag was supportive of it. You guys were part of a parliamentary committee. You both went to Portugal together to check this out last year. Craig, this is what you said when you came back on this program:


[CRAIG KELLY CLIP] ‘If we're able to match Portugal's drug death rate, we'd save 1700 lives every single year. In Portugal, rather than going down the possibility of criminal sanctions and criminal fines, there's a separate path that they have called a Drug Dissuasion Commission, and that seems to be working.’


Craig, part of the solution is pill-testing, so why are you supporting – broadly – their approach, but pulling back on pill-testing

KELLY: I disagree that somehow the Portuguese model is in contradiction with my opposition to this. In the Portuguese model you are still arrested if you take drugs. You still go down to the police station, you still are charged and there are charges against you, but it's not through the criminal system. You are sent through their drug rehabilitation program, which is basically education for those who are casual users and rehabilitation for those who are actually addicts. So again, my real concern is that this sends the complete wrong message. We have to get over that every batch is a bad batch. Every time that you take MDA as a drug it does you harm. It actually interferes with the neurons in your brain long-term. And that is the message that we've got to make sure that we're clearly getting out.

TILLEY: OK, for these two people in Canberra who may have taken this drug and then may have had an overdose and may have died – you'd rather take a pass on that because you’re more worried about the message that it sends to the broader public?

KELLY: We know that on those testings there were 85 samples tested during that concert on the weekend. Now, I'm sure that there were more than 85 people that actually bought drugs and used drugs into that rock concern, so the concern is there would have been many other people that would have taken drugs that had these harmful chemicals in them. Now, that's the concern, that all those other thousands of people that are doing that, it gives them a green light and creates a little bit of encouragement that it's the government's actually saying, ‘Yes, it's okay to take drugs,’ and that's, I believe, the message we've got to get to. People are going to take drugs, that's a decision that they make, but as a government we've got to keep hitting the education message that these drugs will do you harm, and significant harm in the long term.

TILLEY: On the text line: ‘Drug testing at a music festival is not going to encourage people to take drugs. People aren't going to start taking drugs because it can be tested. We need politicians to understand the youth.’

Doogs in Hobart, you say: ‘Dinosaur mentality from Craig.’

Another listener, you say: ‘I strongly support pill testing. Testing doesn't encourage drug use, it just makes it safer.’

Josh in Melbourne, what's your reaction to this debate?

LISTENER: I'd agree with the last text message, Tom. Basically, I think it's not encouraging drug use, it's just informing people of what's actually in their drugs. So there's nothing to say that the pill testers actually say, ‘This is good drugs or bad drugs.’

TILLEY: But Craig's concern is that for 50% of people that got their drugs tested on the weekend, and it said, ‘This is pure,’ that that's an encouragement to those people?

LISTENER: Well, do you necessarily need to say, ‘This is pure’, or can you say, ‘This is MDMA, this is cocaine, this has got paint in it, this doesn’t have paint in it’? It doesn't need to be this is, ‘100% pure cocaine’, it's just ‘this is cocaine’.

TILLEY: Yeah, alright. Thanks for the call. Ryan what do you think?

LISTENER: Hey mate, I was just thinking that it's quite hypocritical of both governments, both sides, to constantly choose what is and isn't allowed, when they allow cigarettes, gambling, alcohol. All these things cause harm, but everyone does them anyway. How is ecstasy, MDMA, coke, you know all the normal type of drugs that everyone in Sydney does regardless. Surely we should just make that a legal product, put a warning label on it, say, ‘You're responsible for your healthcare,’ in exactly the same way we do with many other drugs, and that way the money's in the system, stops all the imports, stops all the gangs, and the money goes to the medical system. It's a win-win for everyone.

TILLEY: Alright, I'll put that to Craig Kelly. Good idea?

KELLY: I understand the point that you are making. I understand the point that it seems to be very hypocritical of government when we allow cigarettes, when we allow alcohol which we know are drugs that cause a lot of harm, but yet we make other drugs illegal. I can understand the point that you make. But overall the message that I believe a responsible government should be getting out there is that these drugs cause you significant harm. We know that MDMA causes damage to the neurons in your brain.

TILLEY: But you can still get that message out there. I mean that's the point with alcohol and cigarettes, we do get that message out when we sell them because we can control them and put labels on them.

SINGH: And in fact the pill-testing health facilities are an opportunity to engage with those young people to get that message out there, and in fact that's what happened last weekend. It'd be interesting to see over time, review how effective last weekend was, because yes it stopped a lot of people ending up in hospital or even – dare I say – dying. But it also made them think twice, and think of the risks of the drugs they were taking, knowing what substance they were then taking and abandoning them. So the education message does come through, through the pill-testing and that is why it is part of a harm reduction approach. A harm reduction approach which both sides of politics support. What is there to lose in this? Shouldn't we take the steps that improve the safety of young people who use drugs? Educates young people about what they are intending to take, shouldn't we trial that?

TILLEY: Lisa, if you're so passionate about it, are you going to pick up the phone to the Victorian, Queensland, and WA Labor Premiers?

SINGH: Well this is the issue here, Tom. Both Craig and I are very aware that this is outside of our jurisdiction. This is a State and Territory issue.

TILLEY: Not outside of your influence, potentially, though?

SINGH: Well this is where at the last election, for example, Labor said that we want to actually develop a new National Drug Strategy because as Craig is aware from the report that we recently handed down looking into crystal methamphetamine, the current approach in Australia is simply not working. We do need a new National Drug Strategy and that approaches a range of harm minimisation efforts and yes, I do believe that pill-testing should be one of those.

TILLEY: So you won't be calling your Labor counterparts in those States, will you or not? No point, you reckon?

SINGH: Well, that's up to them to do of course, but they know exactly where I stand and I am happy to have that conversation with them.

TILLEY: Lisa Singh, thank you so much for joining us.

SINGH: Thanks Tom.

TILLEY: Lisa's a Labor senator from Tasmania. Craig Kelly, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KELLY: Thanks Tom.