YVONNE BONOMO: Victoria’s drug-testing trial will save lives because it knows the truth: people take drugs

Yvonne Bonomo
The Nightly
YVONNE BONOMO: People are going to take drugs. That’s a fact. Why wouldn’t we want to reduce the risks of harm they may cause?
YVONNE BONOMO: People are going to take drugs. That’s a fact. Why wouldn’t we want to reduce the risks of harm they may cause? Credit: Naomi Craigs/The Nightly

The announcement that the Victorian Government is moving ahead with a drug-checking trial this summer is welcome news because it will save the lives of young people in the State.

Having been an addiction medicine specialist for more than 20 years, I understand some members of the community will have reservations about this announcement. To some, changes like this will sit uncomfortably with the long-standing messaging around the dangers of illicit drug use.

But my colleagues and I live in the world as it is, not how others might wish it to be.

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People take drugs. That’s a fact.

And ultimately, if people — particularly young people — are determined to take drugs, then we need to do everything we can to keep them safe.

No one wants another music and dance festival season filled with overdoses and fatalities.

Speaking for my own team, we know that drug checking offers a way to reduce those incidences significantly.

Professor Yvonne Bonomo is the director of addiction medicine at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital.
Professor Yvonne Bonomo is the director of addiction medicine at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital. Credit: Eugene Hyland

Already we’ve seen evidence from other jurisdictions and around the world that drug checking is an effective way of reducing harms and potentially saving lives.

For a cautious public, it’s important to stress the fact that drug checking is not about sending a message that drug taking is safe.

St Vincent’s knows very well the dangers and complexities of this subject.

Many of the mainly young people who unintentionally overdose on drugs at inner-city music and dance festivals or clubs, end up at St Vincent’s for treatment and care.

Drug use can cause serious harm to individuals, families, and communities. Our addiction medicine services are unable to meet the demand for help.

But drug checking doesn’t run counter to those truths.

At its heart, it is about saying — and without judgment — “let us help you better understand the risk you could be taking”.

It’s about information. Information that can save lives. It’s as simple as that.

Drug checking has another major benefit: identifying the arrival of new drugs on our streets.

New drugs are increasingly emerging in Australia. So quickly are they entering popular use, we are often yet to determine their impact or how dangerous they are before they become available in clubs and festivals.

In January, CanTEST, the ACT’s drug-checking service, discovered three new drugs as part of its operations.

Recently we’ve seen the growth in use of the class of synthetic opioids known as nitazenes and a spate of connected overdoses.

Victoria’s drug-checking trial will be extremely helpful in detecting these drugs early and developing our understanding of them and how we can best manage their risks.

It’s also a welcome move that the Government has included a fixed site as part of its trial. Fixed site testing complements mobile offsite testing by offering additional data for surveillance, drug trend monitoring, the detection of new and emerging drugs, and additional opportunities for more extensive counselling and advice.

Finally, in addition to providing healthcare workers with the opportunity to engage participants with information about the risks and harms associated with drug use, it’s important the trial offers a doorway for people to seek treatment and further support if required.

It is not often health workers are given an opportunity to intervene immediately before people choose to take these drugs. We should be making the most of it.

Drug checking is by no means a silver bullet for ending drug-related harms and fatalities.

Any drug checking operation needs to be considered as part of a multi-faceted health approach, including efforts at prevention, and adequately funded early intervention and treatment services.

Even so, our motive should always be to reduce fatalities and other negative impacts that stem from drug use, while providing a pathway to treatment for those who need it.

I’m confident that Victoria’s drug-checking trial will make a valuable contribution to doing just that.

Other States and Territories should note Victoria’s lead — and the work already underway in the ACT and Queensland — and consider their own positions.

Professor Yvonne Bonomo is the director of addiction medicine at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital.

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