The ACT’s ground-breaking pill testing trial will be extended until August after an independent report found it had stopped people from taking some substances and was educating drug users about the risks they faced.
The Australia-first, government-backed CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service was launched last July as a six-month pilot.
An ANU-led independent interim evaluation of the first three months of operation of the city-based service recommended it continue and be developed further, subject to the final evaluation report due in the first half of 2023.
It found that about one-in-five people binned the illicit drug they were planning to take after having it tested and that most of them said they would share the test results with others.
Survey respondents also reported later that they would change the way they use the drug, such as reducing the amount, spacing out when they used it and not using it on their own.
CanTEST tested 232 samples and delivered 376 health interventions to 191 clients, most of whom (88% per cent) were from Canberra and under the age of 35
The most common drugs tested were MDMA, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, ketamine and psychedelics.
Just over half of the drugs tested were actually what people thought they were, ranging from MDMA, where three-quarters of the samples contained the expected drug but sometimes additives, to ketamine, where almost half did not.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the government has extended the pilot to allow time to receive and consider the full evaluation.
Ms Stephen Smith said the service in the City Community Health Centre at 1 Moore Street had received strong community support and been well-received.
She said it was part of the government’s evidence-based approach in treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice matter but reiterated that the government did not support or condone illicit drug use.
“We have seen a great community response to this service,” she said.
“Those using CanTEST have reported positive experiences of having their drugs tested without fear of judgment.
“The service has also contributed to information about the drugs circulating in the Canberra community, which allows health services and the wider community to learn about and respond to dangerous substances earlier.”
But Deputy Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said pill testing was not the panacea some thought it was and offered a false sense of security to drug users.
Mr Hanson said the report showed that most people who went to the centre still took a dangerous drug like MDMA after testing, despite it being a known toxic substance.
“It’s not discouraging drug use in any sense and maybe seem to be encouraging it by giving the sense that it’s safe when there’s nothing safe about MDMA or heroin or any of the other drugs that people think that they’re taking,” he said.
“The discard rates in many cases are because there’s no active quantity of the drug.”
He said it was less about safety and more about quality control.
“People aren’t dying because of what the drug is mixed with; they’re dying because of the substance,” Mr Hanson said.
He said nothing had really changed since the first Groovin’ the Moo trial and this report offered mixed results.
“We all want to do everything we can to keep people safe,” Mr Hanson said. “We don’t want some sort of punitive approach, but there are significant risks with pill testing that need to be understood.”
The government said that over the first four months of the service, CanTEST tested 371 samples, with around 15 per cent of samples being voluntarily discarded by clients following testing.
The service also delivered 436 health and alcohol and drug interventions, with some clients receiving multiple interventions in one visit.
The interim independent report found that 80 per cent of clients accepted an alcohol and drug or health intervention, and 62 per cent reported never previously accessing a healthcare worker for information or advice about drug use.
It also reported that the service identified a new ketamine-like substance in circulation, the first time globally that an unknown substance had been identified in a drug-checking service.
The find drew enquiries from across Australia and the world and provided timely information on the identity of a new psychoactive substance in the Australian drug market.
The report said the small number of users from outside Canberra refuted suggestions of any “honeypot” effect and supported the argument for similar centres to be established elsewhere.
It said that if the service continued at the same level, more funding would be needed for at least two analytical chemists and its own drug-testing equipment, currently on loan.
Feedback showed that the centre should be open on more days and extend its opening hours.
Operating partner Directions Health said the service provided life-saving information and reduced the chance of overdose.
“Without CanTEST, we would not have identified dangerous and unexpected drugs circulating in Canberra or had the opportunity to have a non-judgmental, practical and evidence-based discussion about drugs, their contents and potency with the people planning to use them,” acting CEO Stephanie Stephens said.
Harm Reduction Australia & Pill Testing Australia President Gino Vumbaca said the service had proven itself.
“The lack of pill testing services outside Canberra is an ongoing tragedy for far too many people and families and begs the question of how much more evidence is required for these services to be established,” he said.
The final evaluation is expected to be delivered in the first half of this year.
Extending the trial in its current form will cost $350,000.
CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service is run by Directions Health Services in partnership with Pill Testing Australia and Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy.