29 August 2019

Report confirms what we thought – pill testing saves lives so let's make it routine

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA
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pill testing

With the release of the Pill Testing Australia’s detailed report outlining the results of Australia’s second pill testing trial at April’s Groovin’ the Moo music festival, it’s difficult to understand why there is still a reticence to introduce regular pill testing.

As uncomfortable as it makes many people feel, we know that there is significant drug-taking at music festivals.

We have seen the tragic results of when this goes wrong, with a number of deaths at music festivals across Australia last summer. This second trial has once again demonstrated that pill testing can reduce some of the risks being taken by festival patrons and can save lives.

Thanks to the learnings of the first trial, this trial was easier to prepare for and involved organisations that had already participated the first time around.

The report noted that despite little signage, more than 200 people made their way to the pill testing tent this year and 174 samples were tested. More than 20 of the participants of the trial were under the age of 18. While 147 of the participants thought they had Ecstasy/MDMA in their possession, one-third of these people discovered that the substance they had was not relatively pure.

Every one of the seven people who were informed that their pills contained the lethal substance N-ethyl pentylone discarded these pills.

Every patron who presented at the service received health warnings and safety information. Some patrons reported that they presented to get their pills tested after friends who had already had substances tested reported the results and increased their concerns about what might be in pills that were purchased from the same source.

While we know that pill testing will not stop all people taking illegal drugs, we now have additional evidence that pill testing provides an opportunity for health professionals to engage with people about the risks of their drug-taking prior to taking these drugs and this engagement can change their intentions and actions. In some instances, this information has resulted in people discarding very dangerous substances that they had been planning to ingest.

We know that these trials have probably saved lives – and not just those who presented at the service. As the report notes, an additional benefit of the service was its ability to work closely with ACT Medical Services at the festival, which saw the real-time exchange of information between all parties. This means that there was good information held by medical professionals dealing with other patrons who were potentially adversely affected by drugs circulating at the festival.

So while other jurisdictions struggle to get the elements in place to even run a trial, here in the ACT we must contemplate how we make this regular and routine. The report unsurprisingly makes calls for regular pill testing to be part of other music festivals, as well as delivering pill testing in other settings including the idea of a permanent pill testing facility. This echoes calls from advocates such as the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Alliance (ATODA) to establish a permanent pill testing facility.

And while we are still waiting on the results of the independent evaluation that will be released later in the year, the evidence we already have suggests that we should move swiftly to introduce pill testing.

I think it’s important to introduce regular pill testing services to ensure we don’t see situations where a life is lost due to a bad decision. What do you think?

Rebecca is a member of the Board of the Canberra Alliance of Harm Minimisation and Advocacy.

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Let’s try an analogy, using some of the language and arguments of this opinion piece.
I intend to speed around Canberra above the speed limit. I will do that because its cool, I can’t control my impulses and I don’t care if my behavior causes harm to myself or others.
We know that there is significant speeding on our roads and we have seen tragic results with many deaths.
So there should be public funded vehicle checks to ensure my car is safe for me to speed.
Vehicle testing provides an opportunity for health and safety professionals to engage with people about the risks of their speeding prior to speeding and this engagement can change their intentions and actions.
I think it’s important to introduce regular vehicle testing services to ensure we don’t see situations where a life is lost due to a bad decision.

Does this sound like an illogical and foolish idea?

Capital Retro11:43 am 31 Aug 19

With respect, not everyone thinks the same so if I were Dr. Phil I would say: “you need help”.

Capital Retro8:51 am 30 Aug 19

“A death at a festival costs the tax payer over $1,000,000”

Ridiculous. You need to explain this in detail.

HardBallGets5:24 pm 29 Aug 19

Good article Rebecca. Whilst the predictable opposition will voice arguments centered on an imaginary world in which everyone would just not take drugs (or if they do they surrender any right to our support, health, compassion, protection), it is important we respond to the real world and to the evidence of what works.

The ACT is in many respects a progressive community. Not everyone of course, but that’s what’s good about democracy.

Capital Retro7:15 pm 29 Aug 19

Predictability is not exclusive to conservatives and “an imaginary world” is the one which drug users visit.

Capital Retro5:09 pm 29 Aug 19

“What a contradiction yes your drugs are safe to take, next minute the police officer rightfully arrests you as it is illegal! the money would be better of testing and legalising marijuana that may be beneficial to some.”

When was the last time anyone was arrested in the ACT for drug possession?

Oh dear! There are still people (including politicians!) who – in spite of all the evidence – think that the “war on drugs” is being won by law enforcement! In spite of best efforts by law enforcement – and they do deserve high praise for their interceptions – the use of illicit drugs has not reduced in the five decades of the “war” because the demand has not been reduced.

Some of the submissions here also think that the “user pays” means that drug users should die if they are daft enough to take substances that the salesman told them are good. The problem is that illegality ensures that [a] the user cannot know what the substances contain and [b] the salesman can get away with it every time because the defrauded user cannot report him/her to the police.

Listen to Mick Palmer who, after a 33 year career as a police officer, including a term as Commissioner of the AFP, has declared the war on drugs an absolute disaster. I’d take his opinion any day ahead of those of you whose opinions are based solely on prejudice.

I agree that drug taking is risky – even alcohol – but decades of the “war” have not reduced the numbers who like to get their kicks that way, and they should be able to make an informed decision.

I also agree that issues like driving under drug influence need to be addressed, but this, too, will be greatly reduced if users can ensure that they do not exceed their capacity.

What other sorts of minor crimes can we help people commit without any legal consequences?

russianafroman1:48 pm 29 Aug 19

One of the main reasons people avoid taking hard drugs is the fear they’re spiked. Now, thanks to the government, people have one less barrier to entry when it comes to hard drugs. These drugs destroy lives. MDMA, ecstasy, heroin etc destroy lives permanently. Why should the taxpayer pay for an increased drug use rate across the ACT? You’d rather be dead than be hooked on ecstasy. What they’re doing is handing people hard drugs and saying “here, your drugs are safe” – given they’re not spiked. No drugs are safe. This is a terrible precedent. If a drug user takes a spiked drug than that’s their onus and their responsibility for breaking the law.

Capital Retro1:39 pm 29 Aug 19

“Can we also have a drunk driving lane? It’s a legal drug so why can’t we?”

If you fail the RBT you are fined, lose your drivers licence or worse.

Same if you are caught driving with drugs in your system.

But turn up to a government sanctioned pop/drug festival you can shoot up or pop pills with impunity and then expect taxpayers to clean up the mess.

Where is the fairness in this?

Chris Cross – Were talking about children, not morons. Young people with no to little thought of consequences. Have you ever seen kids displaying foolish behaviour? Of course you have. All kids do dumb things and make poor decisions growing up, granted however they are not all are drug related. I gather then that as a child or teen you never did anything foolish or moronic that you later regretted? Judging from on high isn’t helping keep kids alive.

Ted Douglas – What? How exactly would/could that even happen?

Stephen Saunders11:28 am 29 Aug 19

Sorry, Rebecca, most of the comments here are not evidence-friendly, they would much rather that people die. It’s only fair.

If you pray hard enough, god might give you a spin on the evidence, that makes conservative political leaders look good. That should do it.

Not taking drugs saves more lives, so lets not promote abusing drugs, pretending it is EVER safe.

HardBallGets10:36 am 29 Aug 19

Your view is not uncommon and I agree that finding humane policy settings which would mean that no one takes drugs at all would be the best solution. It is however critically important to respond to the world as we find it, rather than how we would like it to be if we could choose one of our liking from a catalogue. “Ï’ll take the one with no drugs, thanks.”

Can you imagine how simple alcohol regulation would be if people just didn’t drink? Think of all the public health money we could save if people just refused to smoke cigarettes, or over-eat, or drive unsafely. These things are complex however because, unhelpfully, people don’t always behave how other people think they should.

43 per cent of Australians have used drugs illicitly. We’re not dealing with a lunatic fringe here; drug use is not unusual and is entrenched behaviour. Personally I choose not to use drugs at all – including alcohol – but I understand and accept that makes me an outlier. It does not help the community, the debate, or those close to me to simply refuse to support anything that doesn’t accord with my choices … especially if there is a sound and growing evidence base of their safety and effectiveness.


There is a vast difference between support and facilitation.

Support is rehabilitation programs for addicts. Facilitation is checking the purity of their ILLEGAL drugs for them.

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