I WANT TO KNOW WHATS IN MY DRUGS!
Key takeaway points have been summarised for your convenience below:
» With 1,808 drug-induced deaths registered in Australia between 2016 and May 2018, the prominence of drug-related casualties remains high (Link).
» Dr. David Caldicott who led the Groovin’ the Moo pill testing trial argues that there is great potential for deterring young people from taking drugs by appealing to two main contributors: “the idea that what they’re taking could kill them and the idea that they’ve been ripped off.” By highlighting what is contained in the pills, both in terms of purity and toxicity, he adds, “we’re able to provide both of those messages.”
» Pill testing is now a common practice in European countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and France. While the legality of these measures is not always clear and there are varying levels of government support, professionals have noted that “its effectiveness is strongly grounded in evidence” and “there are good reasons why this country should introduce the measure” (Link).
» While many critics of pill testing still argue that it gives the green light to drug use, current preventative methods of heavy policing and sniffer dogs have failed to put an end to drug-related deaths and hospitalisation. Moreover, there is the possibility that these measures contribute to dangerous drug by users avoiding detection. This leads to the consumption of unknown substances and unfortunately, delaying seeking help out of fear of punishment.
» Research shows that young people are vehemently in support of introducing pill testing with more than 82% of those aged 16 to 25 years (of 2,300 surveyed) stating they are in favour. The Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 reported that young people want to be more educated and informed about the drugs they are taking so they can make better-informed choices (Link).
» The bottom line: pill testing will save lives.
PILL-TESTING SHOULD BE LEGAL
At this year’s Groovin’ the Moo music festival in Canberra, Australia’s first pill testing trial was conducted. The long awaited efforts came following many deaths in recent years as a result of the consumption of toxic pills and drug-related overdoses. Despite positive results from the trial suggesting it’s benefits in educating and protecting festival goers, months on there have been no indications that other festivals will hold similar tests. This is in spite of the deaths of two young people at Sydney’s Defqon.1 music festival along with the 13 others who were admitted to hospital for drug-related issues, and 700 others who sought medical treatment on site (Link). The incident reignited heavy debates over the widespread introduction of pill testing at recreational events.
After the Defqon.1 incident, Dr. Nicole Lee publicly expressed her opinion on social media stating, “young people will experiment and we may or may not agree with those choices, but they shouldn’t die because of them.”
Public health experts and many medical professionals have long rallied for pill testing as a method to reduce harm to those who choose to consume illicit drugs at events, informing them and educating them about every pill’s contents. Many politicians continue to maintain a hard-line policy, instead promising to continue to reinforce zero-tolerance prohibition. In response to Defqon.1, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed her stance against pill testing, instead assigning blame to the festival, and vowing to shut it down, stating, “this is an unsafe event and I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure it never happens again.”
She further claimed “anyone who is advocating pill testing is giving the green light to drugs that is absolutely unacceptable”. (Link)
Defqon.1 joins a long list of festivals across the world that have been the site of unfortunate drug-related deaths, and critics have declared that turning a blind eye to the fact that young people continue to seek drugs, and that drugs continue to be present at recreational events, is irresponsible. Ted Noffs Foundation spokesman Kieran Palmer stated, “this debate is no longer about opinion… it’s no longer about what we think might work.”
In reference to the results from overseas pill testing, he says, “we have the evidence. Shutting down festivals, getting tough on drugs, telling kids to ‘just say no’ doesn’t work. It doesn’t change behaviour.”
David Caldicott, a doctor who worked on the Groovin’ the Moo trial, went as far as to say that, “doing the same ‘ol, same ‘ol is killing people” (Link).
With 1,808 drug-induced deaths registered in Australia between 2016 and May 2018, the prominence of drug-related casualties remains high (Link).
A 2010 survey found that over 11% of young people aged 20 to 29 had taken drugs in the last 12 months, in addition to 7% of 18- to 19-year-olds. A 2014 study showed that 70% of 1,000 ecstasy users consumed the drug at clubs, dance parties and music festivals (Link). These results suggest that pill testing at events provides the opportunity to connect with a large proportion of recreational ecstasy users. Each year and each casualty provides more evidence to support pill testing, while regular law enforcement methods fail to prevent the loss of life.credit: Jess Gleeson
THE TEST IN QUESTION
The test that has received so much attention involves using a DIY kit that works by mixing a sample of the drug to be consumed with a solution that changes colour based on the substances present. The colours are produced when a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrophotometer passes an infrared light across the sample and runs the contents against a database of known substances. In the process, it identifies both active and inactive ingredients, and most importantly dangerous toxins. It also reports the purity of the drug. When presenting drugs to be tested, those in possession sign a waiver declaring that they understand that no drug use is safe and that the best precaution is not consuming illicit drugs at all.
Dr. David Caldicott led the Groovin’ the Moo trial. He is a clinical senior lecturer at the ANU Medical School and a member of a hospital emergency response unit. He has been advocating for pill testing at music festivals for many years and states that it is not only the obvious benefits of mortality reduction that need to be considered. He says that there is also great potential for deterring young people from taking drugs at all, by appealing to two main contributors to changing their mind: “the idea that what they’re taking could kill them and the idea that they’ve been ripped off.” By highlighting what is contained in the pills, both in terms of purity and toxicity, he adds, “we’re able to provide both of those messages.”
Pill testing has already been implemented in a number of places overseas, providing positive models for Australian applications.
AROUND THE WORLD
Pill testing is now a common practice in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and France. It has also been implemented in the USA. The legality of these measures is not always clear, and there are varying levels of government support, however, Professor Alison Ritter states that “its effectiveness is strongly grounded in evidence” and “there are good reasons why this country should introduce the measure” (Link).
The city of Amsterdam has long been seen as progressive in its stance towards drug consumption. A tourist capital for marijuana, the Netherlands capital has a history of regulating recreational drugs. In 2017, the city launched a drug safety campaign aimed at encouraging Amsterdam Dance Event attendees to seek medical help if their drug experience led them to feel unwell. The move came after the realisation that zero-tolerance towards drug consumption would not completely prevent drug use. While maintaining that the event would not allow drugs, a nearby test service was opened where people could have their drugs tested for harmful substances. The efforts were coupled with animated films, posters, information booklets and specific staff training on how to deal with drug and alcohol incidences (Link).
Since 2016, pill testing has been prevalent at USA music festivals. At events such as the three-day Backwoods festival in Oklahoma, attendees can have their drugs tested at the same place where they apply sunscreen and pick up earplugs. The festival website states that, “it is inevitable some will choose to take illicit substances despite efforts to prevent it” and “since this cannot be ignored, Backwoods wants to ensure the health and safety of our attendees.”
While Missi Wooldridge, the executive director of San Francisco-based Dance Safe, states that it is impractical to assume that complete elimination of drugs is a viable goal, stating, “we’ve never had a drug-free society and it’s unrealistic to think that’s attainable.” Dance Safe works alongside multiple music events to stock public safety information and products from condoms to drug testing kits. The main aim is to keep festival-goers safe, and alive.
THE BENEFITS OF PILL-TESTING
Prevention of death is the most obvious benefit that advocates call on when outlining the reasons for widespread pill testing, however, there are many other benefits that such a practice can also provide.
INFLUENCING THE MARKET
Pill testing identifies what is contained in drugs, and has effectively been shown to change the black market in regards to the purity of drugs on offer. Unregulated markets allow toxic contaminants to be widespread in pills because they will largely go unrecognised. When certain ingredients have been found to be dangerous and have become the focus of prevention campaigns, they have subsequently been found to leave the market (Link). In addition, the contents of pills started to reflect the expected components more accurately over time. While mere detection of contents is not the solution to preventing all drug-related health problems, pill testing provides a deterrent to the sale of dangerous substances and allows consumers to take drugs that align more accurately with their expectations. (Link).
CHANGES IN BEHAVIOUR
Often an ignored benefit of pill testing is the potential it has to change consumer behaviour. In Austria, research showed that 50% of people who participated in drug testing said the results had some effect on their decision to consume drugs. Two-thirds of participants stated that if they received a negative result, they wouldn’t take the drugs, and would also warn their friends (Link). Pill testing booths provide an opportunity for medical professionals and drug services to interact with drug users to provide support and information. The recreational drug using population is normally difficult to outreach because they do not seek professional help. Such an opportunity to interact with them shouldn’t be understated. There are future possibilities for follow up with drug users who are not yet at a crisis point, but continue to make up a high-risk group.
The data acquired from pill testing gives researchers and government’s invaluable information about the drugs currently in circulation. Data capture creates the potential for warnings and can be the difference between life and death in many cases. New designer drugs and psychoactive substances are constantly being manufactured, and data is critical in remaining in step with the black market (Link). During the Groovin’ the Moo trial testers found the lethal substance N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone) which has already been responsible for a number of mass overdoses around the world, alongside paint and toothpaste. Those who carried the drugs containing the lethal and unknown substances disposed of the pills and were extremely grateful, while authorities received invaluable information and were alerted to current trends (Link).
While many critics still argue that providing pill testing gives the green light to drug use, current methods of heavy policing and sniffer dogs have failed to put an end to drug-related deaths and hospitalisation. There are some claims that these methods contribute to dangerous drug taking, with drug users taking unsafe amounts of illicit substances to avoid detection and the continued consumption of unknown contaminants. ACT Chief Police Officer Justine Saunders commented after the Groovin’ the Moo trial that “we’ve had drug-testing capabilities and drug-injecting rooms around the country for many years and we don’t have police standing outside those locations.” She urged others to recognise that these practices aren’t new, and are a positive step towards the preservation of life.
Research shows that young people are vehemently in support of introducing pill testing with more than 82% of those aged 16 to 25 years (of 2,300 surveyed) stating they are in favour. The Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 reported that young people want to be more educated and informed about the drugs they are taking so they can make better-informed choices (Link).
After the deaths at the Defqon.1, Dr. Alex Wodak, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, stated that the NSW Premier should turn her attention from a zero tolerance policy towards drug taking, towards a zero-tolerance policy towards death. Mr Wodak is the same advocate who pioneered Australia’s first legal injection centre in 1986 among a heroin epidemic that claimed over 1,000 lives in that year alone. The premier at the time was Bob Carr, who originally opposed the idea, but has since listed the achievement among the proudest in his career (Link). The fear and controversy that surrounds pill testing mirrors many of the same arguments that were voiced against injection centres. Dr. Wodak has stated that he is committed to making pill testing an Australian reality at all costs, declaring in 2016 that, “the idea is to save lives. I am prepared to break the law to save young people’s lives” (Link).
The results from the Groovin’ the Moo trial showed that of the 85 pills tested 50% contained some substance other than what the consumer believed, 50% contained pure MDMA, and 2 pills were found to contain a lethal substance. In light of the trial Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John stated, “If we hadn’t have had this pill-testing trial at GTM over the weekend then it’s likely we would now be mourning the avoidable deaths of two young people who have ingested deadly substances” (Link).
The bottom line: pill testing saves lives.