Pill testing must become routine in Canberra and across the country

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 30 January 2019 36

A deadly decision: Why pill testing should be considered as a harm reduction strategy – not only in Canberra but across the country.

It has been a horror summer on the music festival circuit. Six young people have lost their lives after taking illegal drugs at music festivals in NSW and Victoria. More remain desperately ill, with media reporting that at least 16 people that attended festivals last weekend have been hospitalised.

As most young people do, these youths did something risky. In this case, what they did was also illegal. And while it is easy to judge, it’s important to understand why this happened and what we can do to keep people safer. When we look back on our youth, most of us own up to making some poor decisions and doing dumb stuff. Most of us were lucky and got away with it. Tragically, these young Australians did not. Now there are families across Australia dealing with grief and loss that will last a lifetime.

This unnecessary loss of life has re-ignited the debate around pill testing. Both the NSW and Victorian governments remain unmoved to look at pill testing as a strategy to keep young people safe. There are plenty of others, however, who feel we should give this a go. The latest deaths have prompted politicians to reflect on their previous drug use, and doctors and nurses to urge pill testing to be considered at music festivals and other events.

Politicians argue the need for more evidence before widespread use of pill testing can be contemplated. Like any other measure, pill testing is not foolproof and isn’t a guarantee. It has however been used in around 120 countries with a clear view that it has saved lives. The one trial that has occurred on Australian soil at Canberra’s Groovin’ the Moo festival provided evidence of its usefulness.

Despite shrill calls about the need to maintain a zero-tolerance attitude toward illegal drugs, we know that people continue to use illegal drugs. It seems inconceivable that we would not use all the measures in our power to prevent harm and reduce risk. Harm reduction is a standard part of many public health issues. It can never be a guarantee, a sole response or silver bullet but can make a real difference. Indeed, while the introduction of seat belts have not prevented all road deaths, it has saved many people. While at the time people worried that it would increase risky driving, now we cannot imagine cars without seatbelts.

Tragic events such as this year’s deaths may have a deterrent effect on a small number of people. There are still plenty of people however who will still take the risk. So, why wouldn’t we engage with people about the risks and provide them with information to make a better decision? Why wouldn’t we enable people to find out what is actually in the pills they bought so they can decide if it really is worth the risk? Why wouldn’t we present options such as discarding a dodgy pill? Why wouldn’t we have a conversation that may impact on decisions they make in the future?

Here in the ACT, last year’s trial has provided politicians, health practitioners, the police and others with the confidence to do it again. The ACT Government recently released the ACT Drug Strategy Action Plan 2018-2021: A Plan to Minimise Harms from Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use. In this, the ACT Government has committed to exploring pill testing at future events held in the ACT. This is a very good thing. There will be the need to move quickly from merely exploring the opportunity to implementing regular pill testing at events. We also need to look at other strategies to expand access to pill testing. The Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Alliance (ATODA) has proposed introducing permanent pill testing facilities as part of their submission to the Drug Strategy.

Surely it is time to move past the hysteria around pill testing and provide pill testing in places where people are known to use party drugs. This starts with festivals but should also include permanent drug testing facilities. What do you think?

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36 Responses to Pill testing must become routine in Canberra and across the country
Emily Carter Emily Carter 1:18 pm 03 Feb 19

Thank god the ACT Government has some sense regarding this issue

Steve Herczeg Steve Herczeg 5:06 pm 01 Feb 19

Interestingly, a scientific study of teenage drug usage found that 100% the control group, I.e. those that didn't drugs, didn't die or overdose. Interesting statistic that.

Maelinar Maelinar 8:24 am 01 Feb 19

As I’ve noted in the other threads on this forum which seems to be riding this issue like the proverbial dead horse, I support pill testing, but I don’t agree that pill testing at music festivals is the appropriate location – I think this is just a knee-jerk reaction that is playing into the hands of the dealers themselves which is being sensationalised by the media who are whipping up the frenzy for who-knows-what motive. Somebody must have done some research and figured out it would sell papers I guess.

The solution to the problem as has been noted in this tread is permanent pill testing. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, why not operate a discrete service at every police station in the country alongside a free dob-in service ? The only objection to that I fear would be from the blue themselves because they would finally be forced to do something about it if it comes in through the front door.

As has also been already said on this thread, people who take pills don’t just do it at music festivals, lets also not tar the music festival concept with a ‘this is the environment to do drugs in’ brush either.

Alex SmilyLex Alex SmilyLex 1:01 am 01 Feb 19

Pill testing will push the pushers into clean supply after word of mouth come out.

Travissi Gilbert Travissi Gilbert 9:39 pm 31 Jan 19

I think permanent testing facilities with a view to establishing a national database are a sensible proposition.

They would presumably function as a tracking and early warning system for drugs presenting a higher probability of serious adverse reaction (I.e. Cathinones, dissociatives and 2,5,NBoMe) or with a much lower Lethal Dose threshold than MDMA (I.e. PMA and PMMA). Crucially there are a plethora of alpha-numeric 'research chemicals - not for human consumption' that can be located on line with little difficulty that these facilities could detect and ideally results would then be publicly disseminated with the aim of deterring acquisition and consumption.

Importantly, drug education is so ratshit that many people may not comprehend the advice provided.

It should also be noted that MDMA itself has been linked to at least 7 fatalities in Australia since 1995.

If you lack the important CYP2D6 enzyme you are more likely to have a fatal adverse drug reaction to MDMA (and Aspirin and a range of OTC and prescription medicines that rely on that enzyme to metabolize for excretion from the body.

There is also the risk of hypothermia and neurotoxicity due to fluid retention and swelling after dancing in hot environments.

No drug is safe. All drug use invites the risk of harm. When a serious adverse reaction occurs or a person has overdosed, I reckon paramedics and treating doctors would be in a much better position to respond, if they could be confident the drug a person's friends thought they ingested was in fact, what they actually ingested.

Just say no or just say know?

A measured piece amidst an at times emotive debate.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the ADLF and Harm Reduction Australia. I'd also die a happier bloke, if we reached a point where evidence trumped moral entrepreneurship in guiding drug policy and risk mitigation.

Ray Ez Ray Ez 9:18 pm 31 Jan 19

Why do we enable people to break the law? Besides, pill testing does nothing to address overdoses, only to detect some known poisons. Besides, dealers will just use the scheme to authenticate their drugs and mark up their prices, coz they tested well!

Paul Casey Paul Casey 9:10 pm 31 Jan 19

Please everyone just wake up and pull your heads out of the sand.. Drugs are illegal and pill testing WILL NOT save lives! Period, end of story.

    Ryan Daniel Ryan Daniel 10:04 pm 31 Jan 19

    Paul Casey what’s the worst that can happen if it’s just given a go? Just allow it at festivals where it will be paid for by the event organiser. What is there to lose? If it’s then proven to be ineffective then it can be canned.

    Nathan James Nathan James 10:37 pm 31 Jan 19

    It was trialled at GTM last year and several pills were detected to be laced/cut down at which point punters chose to throw them out.

    Additionally anyone who does test is given a wristband. If they present to first aid medical staff can reference the band to the substances and thus provide quicker medical intervention. How won't it save lives?

    Leigh Brady Leigh Brady 10:50 pm 31 Jan 19

    ”drugs are illegal” is not a valid argument.

    1) we as society decide what is illegal and that changes over time (eg same sex marriage)

    2) lots of things are illegal but we put in place safety measures for people - speeding, guns, smoking etc.

Bek Clark Bek Clark 9:08 pm 31 Jan 19

I think after a horror summer of deaths, it’s pathetic we’re still debating this

Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 9:02 pm 31 Jan 19

Yes Rebecca..yes yes yes

Corey Karl Corey Karl 7:40 pm 31 Jan 19

Can someone explain how a small scraping off the side of a pill....give you accurate ingredients of the contents of the pill ??? What happens when a pill has been cleared and the user still dies ??? Pill testing won’t detect strength of the drug??? Pill testing won’t identify the reaction that the user may have by taking it !!!! In 11 hours of pill testing last festival, 83 pills were tested !!! Hardly a raging success !!! There are over 720 synthetic substances that have been detected in pills.... scientists in labs can’t keep up with it, how could they possibly do it in the field !!!

    Leigh Brady Leigh Brady 10:56 pm 31 Jan 19

    Corey - go back to school. Your science literacy is appalling.

    Pull testing DOES give an accurate reading of both strength and ingredients.

    People who have their pills tested are still personally liable. Both before and after they see a medical professional who advises them not to take the drugs. If they still die - it’s their own fault.

    And the labs can handle the volume no problem. This has been proven in other countries that have introduced pill testing (successfully).

Andrew Duncan Andrew Duncan 7:16 pm 31 Jan 19

‘Dodgy pulls’....why not gave constant pill testing everywhere? Why just music festivals? Why but allow someone to take some pill, point, line to local chemist in Belconnen Mall and get tested?

Matt Donnelly Matt Donnelly 6:23 pm 31 Jan 19

A short video from emergency physician, and STA-SAFE consortium spokesman, Dr David Caldicott explaining how pill testing works at Canberra’s music festivals.

I encourage those who believe the availability of pill testing will encourage or “normalise” illegal drug taking to listen to Dr Caldicott’s recommendation to attendees that “You shouldn’t use any drugs today!”


Kent Street Kent Street 4:14 pm 31 Jan 19

Like most people, I don’t know the solution to the problem.
But, I’m fairly sure that pill testing should form some part of an overall strategy.
The problem is that both extremes of the argument have their blinkers on.
“Just Say No” clearly does not work.
Similarly, repeatedly stating “Pill testing saves lives” does not help either (just my opinion).
Pill testing does not guarantee that you will not die, in the same way that a seat belt will probably not save a speeding drunk driver.
What should comprise the overall strategy and who should be responsible for its funding and administration? Again, I don’t know the answer, but probably best to keep the politicians out of it.

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 9:52 am 31 Jan 19

According to some the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

So we can keep trying the “don’t do drugs, m’kay” message, and keep having dead children, or ...

    Geoff Cooke Geoff Cooke 3:00 pm 31 Jan 19

    It’s mind boggling! Can only put it down to it being easier for politicians to keep going with the failed approach people are used to, rather than try and re-educate and sell to the public a new approach that’s actually effective

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:42 am 31 Jan 19

The idiots that take pills at music festivals are the same ones who take them at home, in the parks and anywhere else convenient. The drug dealers that supply them at the festivals are the same ones who do so at all the other places the idiots frequent so what’s the point in pill testing only in one location?

Plenty of idiots overdose at their homes or places other than music festivals but there is no media beat ups about them. Add those deaths in isolation up and you will get the same number as the ones that die at the festivals.

Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 9:25 am 31 Jan 19

Pill testing will not stop overdoses or side effects.

It will provide a false sense of security to the fools that have their pills tested and think they are "safe" then overdose!

Why are we considering supporting an illegal activity?

    James Shaw James Shaw 9:45 am 31 Jan 19

    Lynne Meredith it won’t stop over doses no, but it will give health care professionals the opportunity to open a dialogue with those using these drugs and educate them on the risks, which will either make them more careful about taking the drugs, or potentially stop them taking them all together. It not about condoning drug use, it’s about recognising that it takes place, regardless of the law, and putting in place measures to do as much as possible to keep people safe.

    Your morality doesn’t save people, in fact I’d argue it’s part of the problem.

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 9:58 am 31 Jan 19

    James Shaw you seriously think they don't know the risks now? Of course they do! Just the same as they know that speeding in a car is dangerous! Taking selfies on a cliff edge is dangerous!

    They gamble on risks all the time, "it won't happen to me" is the common mantra...

    All it will do is give them a green light to take "safe" pills in quantity!

    Geoff Cooke Geoff Cooke 2:54 pm 31 Jan 19

    Lynne Meredith As you mentioned; the youth aren’t obeying the law and they know the risks and willing to take them. Knowing that law alone isn’t at all effective, further measures need to be put in place. It doesn’t change the fact these drugs are illegal, but it does allow health services to interact and minimise harm. The war on drugs has only ever been an epic failure

    Tyson Overhall Tyson Overhall 6:16 pm 31 Jan 19

    Lynne Meredith i agree with you, the other thing to think about is if someone dies as a result of taking a pill deemed "safe" then where does the blame lie? Who would be responsible?

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 7:06 pm 31 Jan 19

    Tyson Overhall agreed! If pills are tested and someone then dies taking a presumably “safe” pill - where does the liability for the death lie? My sense is that if pill testing goes ahead, lawsuits will follow hot on the heals!

    James Shaw James Shaw 7:30 pm 31 Jan 19

    “Your Sense” as what? A lawyer? or as an overly vocal moralist who can’t see past your own backyard? These tests aren’t going to put a “approved by Australia” stamp on the front of every pill. There will be no liability with those who test the pills, and you know that, unless you’re a complete fool. If you don’t want to take drugs, this won’t force you too, and if you don’t want your kids to take drugs, then you’d better be prepared to follow them everywhere all the time to make sure of that, but if you want your kid to come back to alive, after taking a drug, then you should support pill testing, no one should pay for a silly mistake or a misguided experiment with their lives, and while this may not stop all young people from dying due to drugs, what we’re doing now isn’t doing any better.

    Greg Adams Greg Adams 10:04 pm 31 Jan 19

    Lynne Meredith agreed. Not to mention that the testing does not take into account what other substances or alcohol a person may have consumed in addition to a pill/s they are getting tested.

    Spanner Sixteen-Mil Lancaster Spanner Sixteen-Mil Lancaster 10:20 pm 31 Jan 19

    Greg Adams hence why they have a medical professional with them to discuss. You dont think they will ask what else has been consumed in conjunction with said pill? Provide warnings and info on what can happen and potential warning signs something is starting to go wrong?

    Lynne Meredith i dont think any pills will be deemed "safe", i dont think you are educated on this matter whatsoever. All you are doing is throwing out wild presumptions on how you think it will all happen without actually having a clue of what it is like at all. "Drugs are bad and should be avoided at all costs" are the whole reason why this is a thing. Compare deaths from alcohol and cigarettes to illicit drugs, whilst also comparing the cost to the government and I think you will find illicit drugs have a much better track record. Even with barely any effort of harm minimisation

    Matt Donnelly Matt Donnelly 10:55 pm 31 Jan 19

    Pill testing is not only legal, but part of the national health policies of many western nations. Why? Because it saves lives.

    Just like the Australian govt’s opposition to vaping, it is falling behind other developed nations in allowing access to services and products that are proven to benefit individuals, and society as a whole.

    Joe Hulm Joe Hulm 11:04 pm 31 Jan 19

    Lynne Meredith clearly this is not for you. Possibly best to dismount the high horse and realise that people who choose to get high aren’t also choosing to kill themselves. You don’t need to understand it, but if it keeps people around that can’t be a bad thing.

    James Shaw James Shaw 11:55 pm 31 Jan 19

    Let’s all just pop a nice legal benzo, and have a couple of glasses of wine and relax.

    Joe Hulm Joe Hulm 12:52 am 01 Feb 19

    Well not me personally, but it’s a good hashtag.

    Emily Carter Emily Carter 1:14 pm 03 Feb 19

    Lynne Meredith yeah because the current 'just don't do drugs' is clearly working so well... Pill testing isn't about encouraging an illegal activity its actually about education. People are able to make informed decisions and are more likely to be more wary about how they consume drugs. It's also helpful for medical staff for when something does go wrong that they can easily identify the substance that has been taken which allows for easier medical intervention. Drugs have been around for thousands of years so the fact that human beings are wanting to experiment and explore different areas of consciousness is nothing new. If it can save just one life then it's worth it. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol and it's not working for drugs either. Pill testing isn't the entire solution but it's a step towards harm reduction. Ending prohibition, and regulating the sale of drugs like MDMA and LSD where the government can tax and supply to public in safer dosages is the solution

    Emily Carter Emily Carter 1:16 pm 03 Feb 19

    Tyson Overhall When you get your pills tested you sign a waiver that basically states if something does happen then you alone are responsible. Covers a lot of asses that way

Bethany Williams Bethany Williams 7:40 am 31 Jan 19

I think it’s a no-brainer. Young adults will always take party pills. Pill testing will save lives. The view that they won’t die if they don’t take the pills in the first place is the same as banging your head against a brick wall. Saving lives should be the priority, so why not take a new approach?

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