22 July 2022

RACGP: Alcohol and other drug problems are health issues

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has today reiterated calls for a health-first approach to alcohol and other drug use.

It comes following reports of Australia’s first ever trial of a fixed-site pill and drug testing site opening in Canberra this week in a bid to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

RACGP spokespeople have previously spoken about the importance of approaching alcohol and other drugs policy from a health-based perspective. In 2019, the college backed efforts to trial and consider pill testing following a spate of deaths at music festivals.

RACGP President Adj. Professor Karen Price said that saving lives and reducing harm must always come first and that we need to take an evidenced-based approach to tackling these issues.

“We need to treat alcohol and other drug use is as a health issue that should be managed by health professionals,” she said.

“As the late Dr Harry Nespolon said so poignantly - at the end of the day, pill testing is nothing to do with legalising and condoning drug use, but reducing harm and ultimately saving lives. Ideally, of course, none of my patients or people anywhere would be engaging in potentially dangerous illicit drug-taking behaviour but the reality is that they do. We can’t stop until we have made every effort to ensure that families across Australia see their children come home from a night out or at a music festival rather than overdosing on illicit drugs.

“Another potential benefit of pill testing, whether at an event such as a music festival or a fixed-site clinic, is that it brings people taking drugs into contact with health professionals and helps educate them about the risks they are taking and can point them to appropriate health services. If only a few people, particularly young people who may not fully be aware of the potential harms, change their behaviour than that is a significant public health policy win.

“Almost all of us know of someone in our lives who has been negatively affected by alcohol or other drug use or suffered some form of harm. This isn’t a problem for ‘other people’, it cuts across all segments of society. Declaring a ‘war on drugs’ will get us nowhere as you are effectively declaring war on someone’s loved one, family member or friend.”

RACGP ACT and NSW Chair Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe also backed the ACT’s fixed-site pill and drug testing site and called for greater reform nation-wide.

“Reducing the harm caused by illicit drugs must be front of mind so that we can save lives across Australia,” she said.

“I think that we need an evolution in thinking when it comes to alcohol and other drug policy in this country. GPs managing mental health concerns wasn’t always considered ‘mainstream’ work by the profession but look where we are now. The same needs to apply to alcohol and other drug policy reform; we are seeing strong progress on this front in the ACT, and we need to see that replicated in jurisdictions nation-wide.

“A health-first approach to alcohol and drug issues will save lives and we can’t stand still because we are a long way behind. Before you know it, music festival season will be here, and young lives may well be tragically lost yet again. That is just a pointless and avoidable loss of life.”

Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine Dr Hester Wilson said that the ACT’s fixed-site site was a positive step forward.

“It’s highly significant. The ACT has led the way with providing pills and substance safety checking at festivals. I think this is such an important aspect of harm minimisation for people who use substances,” she said.

“Pill testing is a really great way of engaging with people who are using drugs, to assist them to do that more safely and to look at the issues in their lives that might be driving the drug use.

“We’ve had recent coroner’s cases where we’ve seen the deaths of people attending festivals because they haven’t had access to check their drugs. If people are given the opportunity to get their drugs tested, if they find out that it’s not safe, that it’s not what they think it is, they will alter their behaviour. I want them to have information so that they can make reasoned decisions. I want them to have somewhere safe to go where they can get good information, good advice to support them to do that more safely.”

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