In a crucial move towards safeguarding lives and minimising the risks associated with novel psychoactive substances (NPS), the Victorian Alcohol & Drug Association (VAADA) is spearheading a call for the implementation of a drug checking and public alert system in Victoria. 

With support from over 70 other organisations across the state – including Youth Projects – the implementation a drug checking and public alert system is an evidence-based harm reduction measure that has been highly successful for decades, internationally 

The urgency of this initiative is underscored by the alarming rise in fatalities attributed to accidental NPS ingestion in Victoria over the past half-decade and aligns to the recommendations of three Victorian Coroners. 

In 2018, Victoria witnessed a peak of 543 overdose deaths after almost a decade of successive increases. Whilst there have been modest declines in total overdose deaths in 2019 to 2021, novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are an emerging concern with 35 NPS-related overdose deaths in 2021, up from 33 in 2020 (Coroners Court, 2021).  

The drug checking and public alert system aims to tackle the surge in harms connected to novel psychoactive substances (NPS) consumption by leveraging evidence-backed measures and enhancing the effectiveness of the Victorian Department of Health’s current initiative to circulate drug alerts with vital information about adulterated substances identified by the Emerging Drugs Network of Australia – Victoria (EDNAV). 

Internationally, drug checking and public alert systems have proven their effectiveness in over 28 countries. In Australia, these systems have already gained ground in Canberra, with plans for implementation in Queensland soon. 

The pilot of a fixed-site service in Canberra demonstrated remarkable gains in self-reported drug harm reduction knowledge, increased trust in service providers, and behaviour changes aligned with harm reduction advice. These positive outcomes solidify the need to expand and develop such initiatives beyond pilot phases, and in more areas, locally. 

Contrary to robust political discourse about drug checking, two recent major surveys (‘2019 Australian Election Study’ and AIHW’s ‘National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019’) found that the majority of Australians support drug checking – with younger people even more likely to support drug checking. 

Recognising the multifaceted ways in which Victorians use drugs, Youth Projects champions a non-judgmental approach to harm minimisation and reduction responses through fixed and mobile assertive outreach strategies. From needle syringe exchange programs to proactive overdose response initiatives, education, and counselling services, we have achieved considerable progress in changing, and saving, lives.

Over the past year alone, Youth Projects has equipped more than 160 individuals with proactive overdose response training, facilitated 364 brief interventions, and initiated over 160 referrals to wraparound services. These statistics attest to the tangible impact in curbing harm and fostering community well-being. 

However, the need for further evidence-based approaches to address substance-related harm in our community amidst escalating fatal overdose rates is imperative to enhance existing service response and health outcomes for all Victorians. 

Operating on principles of harm reduction, inclusivity, accuracy, anonymity, and peer-led initiatives, drug checking and early warning systems will ease pressures on emergency health systems, reduce system burdens, and enhance health outcomes for all Victorians. 

By knowing the harms, we can prevent the harms.

To read the full statement released by VAADA and supported by more than 70 other agencies, please click here to visit VAADA's website.