Festival pill testing in Australia has stalled because no one will insure it

Canberra Times
By Miriam Webber
23 January 2023
Original Article: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/8023212/nothing-we-can-do-why-festival-pill-testing-ended/

It took a mammoth effort to convince the ACT government to allow festival pill testing, but four years on, the only service of its kind in Australia has stalled.

“How did we win the battle, but we’re not allowed to operate now?”, Gino Vumbaca asks, shaking his head.

The Harm Reduction Australia spokesman is one of a group of public health volunteers who brought pill testing to Australia.
But this year it has quietly disappeared from Canberra’s festivals.

Insurers are saying no – dozens of them, and the only government in the country to allow the public health service is powerless to do anything about it.

“It’s great of the jurisdiction to get on board because it allows us an opportunity to springboard into other areas, and now we’re being struck down by an actuary in Switzerland or something,” Mr Vumbaca said.

“After all of that.”

‘Nothing we can do’

‘Everyone else said no, no, no’

In 2018, the ACT became the only jurisdiction to allow the controversial testing to run.

It was a victory, but Mr Vumbaca is not embellishing; it did come in the midst of an all out war.

Between 2017 and 2019, six young people died in NSW as a result of MDMA toxicity or complications of MDMA use at music festivals.
In an inquest, the state’s coroner urged a pill-testing trial; then-premier Gladys Berijiklian instead announced she was “closing the door” on pill testing.

“The ACT were one of the few governments that came back and said ‘Tell us more, we’re not saying yes, but we’d like to know a bit,'” Mr Vumbaca said.

“Everyone else said no, no, no.”

‘The immediate thing for insurers to do is to run away’

Pill testing ran at Groovin the Moo festival in 2018 and 2019, and was beginning to pick up interest from other festival promoters, including Spilt Milk, Mr Vumbaca said.

In 2019, the service found seven instances of the lethal N-ethyl pentylone at the festival, a substance linked to multiple overdoses at music festivals.

All seven participants with the substance discarded the pills when they found out what was in them.

Days before the pill testing clinic was set to return to Groovin the Moo festival in April, after two years, Mr Vumbaca received a call.

Their insurer was pulling out, they didn’t want to cover a service for people engaging with illicit drugs, he said.

There was no way the group could secure the legally required insurance in time, and as a result they withdrew three days before the festival.

Mr Vumbaca has since engaged multiple brokers, who in turn have approached dozens of insurance companies, both in Australia and overseas.

All of them declined, their responses echoing one another: “Outside core risk appetite”, “Not one for us I’m afraid”, “Risk falls outside acceptance criteria”.

“Knowing the insurance world and understanding their appetite for risk, anything that sort of has a headline which tells people that it might have some risk associated with it, such as pill testing, the immediate thing for insurers to do is to run away,” managing director of Intuitive Insurance Solutions Shane Thaw said.

“[But] when you scratch deeper and have a look at the actual activities, I don’t think from a risk point of view and insurance point of view there’s much potential chance of loss.”

Mr Thaw approached about 20 insurers on behalf of Harm Reduction Australia, and did manage to get some quotes, but at “unreasonable, uncommercial prices”.

“The premiums we were getting were six-figure plus premiums,” he said.

“A reasonable amount, in my opinion, would have been around the $10,000 to $15,000 mark.”

The freeze on festival pill testing coincides with a summer experts worry could be deadly.

After two years of COVID-19 restrictions people are keen to get out and they’re also keen to party, Mr Vumbaca said.

His colleague, the clinical lead at Canberra’s pill testing clinic Dr David Caldicott likened it to a “social prison break”.

“Young people want to catch up on lost time, so I think they will party hard,” he said.

“And I think as a consequence, because it’s what happens when young people party hard and with a sense of invincibility, they are occasionally harmed.”

An emergency doctor at Calvary Public Hospital, Dr Caldicott has seen firsthand what happens when things go wrong.

Pill testing at festivals also keeps hospital beds free in emergency departments which are “heaving at the seams” right now.

“Emergency departments aren’t particularly fun places to work at the moment.

“Anything that we can do from a preventative medicine perspective, to stop somebody having to come to hospital, is a bed that is then available for someone who might not be able to avoid coming to hospital,” he said.

No answers from the ACT government

The territory’s Labor-Greens government has taken a progressive stance on drugs.

A fixed pill testing site in Canberra’s city is currently in the sixth month of a trial until August.

In the lead up to Spilt Milk festival in November, the clinic extended its opening hours, and reported a surge in demand.

The Legislative Assembly has also passed laws which will decriminalise possession of small amounts of certain illicit drugs, including cocaine, ice and heroin. And a medically supervised injecting room is on the cards in the next four years.

Despite this track record, the government doesn’t hold any answers.

It “is limited in the support it can provide”, a spokesperson said, but added they are currently reviewing the options.

“It is becoming more challenging for drug checking providers internationally to secure insurance,” they said.

“Even though drug checking is not new internationally, it is a new service in Australia, with only two festival-based trials and the fixed-site service occurring to date, both in the ACT.”

“The local risk profiles required for insurance take time to develop and the fixed-site drug checking pilot in Canberra will likely provide evidence to support insurance for future services in the ACT and elsewhere in Australia,” the spokesperson said.

But it’s a notion Mr Vumbaca can’t wrap his head around.

“Why are insurance companies now dictating public health programs, that everybody has signed off on?” he asks.

“They’re the ones that are saying ‘Nup you’re not having it.'”

“And there’s nothing we can do.”