UMSU Experiments with Drugs

4 March 2019

The welfare department of the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) has introduced a new drug policy this year involving pill-testing kits and workshops as harm-reduction becomes the focus.

This policy is in collaboration with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and has been approved by Victoria Police and UMSU Students’ Council. To begin the trial of this new Safer Partying Initiative, UMSU Welfare has begun hosting pill-testing workshops, the first of which occurred in January, from which free pill-testing kits are being provided.

Workshops include first-aid and legal advice, education on drug testing, literature on campus- based medical services, and disposal instructions for illicit substances along with a strong reiteration to not bring illicit substances to any university campus.

These changes have come about amidst broader societal discussions around drug testing as a result of recent deaths and several hospitalisations at the Knockout Games of Destiny dance festival in Sydney in 2018, and at the Rainbow Serpent festival in Victoria in 2019. Rather than shutting down festivals, as suggested by the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, UMSU believes that pill-testing is a useful method of dealing with a widespread issue, that can and does extend beyond the festival grounds.

Welfare Officers Natasha Guglielmino and Ashwin Chhaperia said that the basis for the project began in 2015 after Students’ Council “passed a motion to support harm reduction principles and the distribution of reagent pill-testing kits”.

Then in 2016, “UMSU Welfare created a harm reduction policy which was expanded upon in 2018. UMSU Welfare’s Safer Partying Initiative came to fruition in 2018 in collaboration with the SSDP Australia,” they said.

UMSU literature over the policy’s formative years explains that the fundamental principle of harm reduction is a more holistic approach to minimising harmful effects over broad recommendations of abstinence, and while UMSU does not condone illicit substance use, their duty is first and foremost to the student body, including students who do partake in illicit substance use. This holistic approach encourages an openminded and non- coercive attitude to deal with what is ultimately a multifaceted phenomenon.

Guglielmino and Chhaperia added, “We realise that the initiative is susceptible to criticism due to the ongoing stigma associated with drug use. However, licit and illicit drug use is a part of our community. Harm reduction is a way to reduce the negative consequences of drug use which saves lives.”

The State Minister for Health Martin Foley could not be contacted for comment, but told The Guardian in January 2019 that Victoria Police were concerned that pill-testing might give “a false, and potentially fatal, sense of security about illicit drugs”.

However, the welfare officers believe pill-testing should be viewed as a public health initiative, “just like the state government’s safe injecting room and needle exchange program”.

“Neither of these programs seek to normalise drug consumption—only to reduce harm and protect the wider community,” they add.

The most recent cost estimates for the continuation of on-campus workshops is $2,500, which was passed by the Welfare Committee earlier this year, of which a portion comes from the Student Services and Amenities Fee.

UMSU also recognises that there are factors that make certain communities particularly vulnerable to drug use, which can subsequently affect their capacity to deal with drug-related harm. Harm reduction, as a principle, aims to include drug users in the creation of programs and to empower them as the primary agents in harm reduction, while not minimising or ignoring the danger associated with substance use. It is hoped these policies will enable all students to make healthier choices and share information with their communities.

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