1 September 2022

Almost a third of drugs tossed away at fixed testing site

| Claire Fenwicke
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drug testing

Chemical analyst Cassidy Whitefield shows how drugs are tested at the country’s first fixed pill testing site. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Sugar posing as methamphetamine and cocaine containing no coke – these were some of the discoveries made at the ACT’s fixed pill testing service.

In its first month of operation 58 samples were tested, with 18 people (or 31 per cent) discarding their drugs once they found out what they really contained.

Ketamine, MDMA, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine were just some of the substances deposited at the CanTEST Health and Drug Checking service, with the drugs analysed at the ANU Research School of Chemistry.

Associate Professor Malcolm McLeod said the results gave a “fascinating window” into the local drug scene.

“They also suggest the service is reaching a far broader cross section of the drug-taking community than what was possible from Australia’s first festival-based pill testing services conducted in previous years,” he said.

Researchers found cocaine had purity levels of 27 per cent, while 40 per cent of samples had no cocaine at all.

Meanwhile 100 per cent of heroin tested contained the drug, with purity levels ranging from 31 to 63 per cent.

One methamphetamine sample was found to simply be sugar, while only 13 of the 19 MDMA samples contained the drug.

The majority of ketamine samples – five of seven – contained the substance, while a “cognitive enhancer” for cosmonauts was a surprise detection.

ANU Medical School associate professor David Caldicott, who was helping to oversee and run the site, said the service also tested for fentanyl, a drug of concern that was increasingly popular.

“To date we have tested 15 samples for traces of fentanyl, with none showing signs of these dangerous and potent synthetic opiates,” he said.

“The fact that fentanyl derivatives were not present in any of the samples test is very good news, given these dangerous and potent synthetic opiates have ravaged North America.”

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He added people had reported feeling safe and respected when they came to have their substances checked.

“Through the CanTEST service we are engaging with a new generation of young consumers, many of whom have never sought advice on their drug consumption before now,” Associate Professor Caldicott said.

“For some, those decisions involve choosing not to consume the drugs that that they have volunteered to have tested. For others, they may choose to use their drugs in a way that makes them less likely to be harmed. For all, CanTEST acts as the catalyst for a conversation that all of them deserve.

“The idea that Australia will ever be ‘drug-free’ is magical thinking from a bygone era; an era that has singularly failed in the goals which it espoused.”

Police officers have not been required to respond to any incidents at the CanTEST site since it opened in July.

An ACT Policing spokesperson said while some people had chosen to discard the substances after having them tested, they warned of the potential impacts on those who still chose to consume illicit drugs.

“Despite having information on what the material is, it is still unsafe to take any illicit drug as people do not know the effect it will have on their body or how they will react to it,” they said.

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Staff also provided 70 alcohol and other drug and health interventions to those who visited.

An ACT Health spokesperson said the drug checking site provided a chance for health professionals to give face-to-face education and advice to Canberrans about the risk of consuming illicit drugs, ways to reduce harm from drug use, and the potential toxicity of any substances identified or unknown.

“As this health intervention occurs before a person takes a substance, it could help them change their mind. Service staff never advise that a drug is ‘safe’,” they said.

“CanTEST also offers other health advice and people can drop in to see the nurse without having drugs tested.”

Health interventions included:

  • a discussion with an alcohol and other drug counsellor or peer educator about a client’s drug use
  • education about drugs, harm reduction and overdose prevention
  • providing health information resources
  • referral to alcohol and other drug treatment and support services
  • consultations with the nurse on-site for general health advice, including sexual and mental health advice and referrals to other health services

CanTEST is a collaboration with Directions Health Services, CAMHA, Pill Testing Australia and ACT Health. The trial will be held for six months. The centre is located at the City Community Health Centre at 1 Moore St, Civic, and is open Thursdays between 10 am and 1 pm and Fridays between 6 pm and 9 pm.

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So the obvious question:

Will those that have been taking sugar pills now seek out and change supplier and go after the real stuff?

In terms of harm reduction, wouldn’t it be better to setup fake suppliers selling placebos and have them tested giving impression of hard drugs?

Condolences for all those who get their property stolen to pay for government sponsored drug habits. The violation of your safe space is no longer a government concern.

I wonder if the Liberals will still try to spin this as a bad idea – 30% of people ditching drugs after finding out what is in them seems like a great first month benchmark. I suspect this service will get even more popular as time goes on. And yet I suspect the Liberals will still cling to the failed “war on drugs” approach of the last 50 years.

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