In a nationwide first, a fixed pill-testing clinic will open its doors in the Territory on Thursday this week to offer free, confidential testing of drugs for a six-month pilot.
For Jen Ross-King, the service has come too late.
She lost her daughter, Alex, in 2019 after she overdosed on three capsules of MDMA at a music festival. She believes that if a service like this had been available, her daughter would still be alive.
But she’s hopeful the pill testing service will stop another family from having to experience a tragedy like hers.
“As parents, we are not equipped [to provide our children with information about drugs],” said Ms Ross-King, who is now an ambassador for Pill Testing Australia.
“There were screenshots on her phone of her trying to find information about MDMA but she didn’t know where to go.”
The CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service is located at the City Community Health Centre at 1 Moore Street.
Potential drug users will be able to bring along a small quantity of the substance they intend to take to have it chemically analysed in a process that takes around 15 minutes.
It’s not just drugs traditionally thought of as party drugs, either. Liquid and other forms of drugs can also be tested.
A person can then be provided with information about the two major substances in the drug and potentially deadly materials like fentanyl.
But Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said the service would not ever be telling a user the drug they were “already intending to take” was safe.
“That is not the message … it’s about identifying substances that are unexpected and providing advice to people about the harms associated with drugs and how they can reduce them,” she explained.
The service will also provide visitors with general risk-mitigation information about drug taking, allowing them to access general, sexual and mental health consultations on-site.
Some of that general advice could include encouraging people to stay hydrated, not to mix drugs and to take drugs in an environment with friends, as well as information about onset times (how long it takes for a drug’s effects to kick in) in an attempt to stop people from taking a large quantity of a substance in one go.
The pilot is being supported by ACT Policing, which Directions CEO Bronwyn Hendry said meant potential clients of the service wouldn’t be arrested for drug possession when arriving at or leaving the clinic.
She noted people were being asked to bring only a small amount of the substance to be tested.
“Pill Testing Australia has demonstrated they can do it successfully at festivals without any criminal repercussions,” she said.
While there is no formal exclusion zone around the centre, Ms Hendry said it was a simple matter of police not policing there.
A spokesperson for ACT Policing confirmed that while they do not condone or support drug-taking, they support harm minimisation.
“While it will remain a crime to sell or possess illicit drugs, police will rely on their discretion when responding to matters in the precinct where the drug checking facility is operational,” they said.
But that same discretion will not apply to anyone suspected of selling drugs.
Initially, the clinic will be open to the public on Thursdays between 10 am and 1 pm and Fridays between 6 pm and 9 pm.
Ms Hendry defended the opening hours times.
She said it was hoped young people planning to use drugs over the weekend or at festivals would find the Friday night opening hours useful while the daytime may suit regular drug users or people who work in the city.
Those opening hours could be adjusted following community feedback.
The effectiveness of the pilot will be analysed by Associate Professor Anna Olsen at the ANU, along with other researchers.
“Understanding the impact of these types of services is especially important given the recent rise in deaths of young people at music festivals and the detection of high-potency synthetic opioids such as fentanyl in seized heroin and cocaine,” Professor Olsen said.
“Our previous work suggests that drug checking services represent a unique setting to engage people who use drugs.”
A $260,000 six-month government-funded trial will be backed by Pill Testing Australia and the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy.
Two festival-based trials have been conducted by Pill Testing Australia, at the 2018 and 2019 Groovin’ The Moo festivals.
The most recent trial found seven of 171 substances tested contained the potentially deadly N-Ethylpentylone. Six people who were told their drugs contained the dangerous substance dumped them on the spot. The other said they planned to do so.
But pill testing at this year’s Groovin’ the Moo was cancelled just days before the event was slated to go ahead after the insurer pulled the plug.
At the time, there were fears that the decision could have a knock-on effect on the pilot but it was confirmed today the fixed site is fully insured.
The government first committed to exploring a fixed site in 2020 following a push from the ACT Greens.
The ACT Government is also pushing ahead with laws to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including cocaine, ice and MDMA.
Opposition spokesperson for police Jeremy Hanson has long held concerns about pill testing, but he said today he hoped the trial went well as he did not want to see any harm come to young people.