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

Rebecca Vassarotti 29 August 2019 78
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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78 Responses to Report confirms what we thought – pill testing saves lives so let’s make it routine
Melinda Parrett Melinda Parrett 9:22 pm 30 Aug 19

It has been proven pill testing is not accurate. And there is no safe level of consuming illegal pills.

    Val Kuta Val Kuta 2:02 am 31 Aug 19

    Melinda Parrett Citation for your first point please?

Acton Acton 7:32 pm 30 Aug 19

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 Retro Capital Retro 11:43 am 31 Aug 19

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

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:51 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.

HardBallGets HardBallGets 5:24 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 Retro Capital Retro 7:15 pm 29 Aug 19

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

Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:09 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?

John Walker John Walker 5:05 pm 29 Aug 19

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.

Robert Hawes Robert Hawes 4:17 pm 29 Aug 19

Be much better to sell them drugs that have a guaranteed quality. Then no need for drug testing.

Rollersk8r Rollersk8r 3:01 pm 29 Aug 19

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

Kirsty Isles Kirsty Isles 2:24 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.

    Damien Harrop Damien Harrop 8:56 pm 29 Aug 19

    Kirsty Isles marijuana is also illegal... 🤦‍♂️

    The drugs being tested (as well as marijuana) could easily also be legalised, commercially manufactured and taxed, akin tobacco and alcohol. It'd remove money from criminal syndicates and put it into government coffers, but for some reason it seems eternally in the "too hard" basket for most governments.

    I'm far from endorsing the legalisation of all drugs, but for a range of drugs, a variety of harms could be better managed and reduced through legalisation.

    Kirsty Isles Kirsty Isles 9:11 am 30 Aug 19

    Damien Harrop exactly

Josh Digby Caesar Josh Digby Caesar 1:54 pm 29 Aug 19

Or we just legalize drugs? At least that way we can regulate quality control AND take money away from organized crime? Have a disclaimer the same as cigarettes on the front of the packet and you are golden.

M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 1:51 pm 29 Aug 19

"’s difficult to understand why there is still a reticence to introduce regular pill testing..." No, there is a reluctance, not reticence.

russianafroman russianafroman 1:48 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 Retro Capital Retro 1:39 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?

Ray Ez Ray Ez 12:50 pm 29 Aug 19

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

    David Murn David Murn 2:20 pm 29 Aug 19

    No but you can be assured the alcoholic beverage you consume doesn't contain methanol, and will be the same strength this time as when you bought it last week.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 3:38 pm 29 Aug 19

    David Murn but alcohol is legal and regulated,your statement is irrelevant. Illegal drugs are, what’s the word for it, illegal and unregulated. Facilitating a crime is wrong. Unless we can also have a drink driving lane, just one,

    Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 4:58 pm 29 Aug 19

    Ray get on the turps and drive around if that's what you want.

    Imants Ezergailis Imants Ezergailis 5:36 pm 29 Aug 19

    David Murn : The price I pay for the alcoholic product includes the cost of ensuring its purity! User pays. Why should drug users have taxpayers paying for their purity checks?

    And I can PAY for a testing device to determine if I am legal to drive. No government subsidies for my purchase!

    Imants Ezergailis Imants Ezergailis 5:37 pm 29 Aug 19

    Rob Thomas : Why not? That is exactly what drug users do!!

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 6:22 pm 29 Aug 19

    Rob Thomas I just want someone to take away any responsibility I have for breaking the law, just like pill testing does..and encourage illegal activity by the way..

    David Murn David Murn 8:00 pm 29 Aug 19

    Imants, tax payers aren't paying for the purity checks, the users or venues are. Government isn't being asked to fund the program, simply to not outlaw it.

    Damien Harrop Damien Harrop 8:59 pm 29 Aug 19

    Ray Ez so why don't we legalise the drugs, then they will be regulated.

    Conversely, criminalise alcohol use, it creates a lot more damage to society than pills that are being tested.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 9:02 pm 29 Aug 19

    Damien Harrop talk to those that make the rules, not those that follow them. Oh, and illegal pills are still illegal!😋

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 9:03 pm 29 Aug 19

    David Murn yes exactly! Law Enforcement is being direct to turn a blind eye to criminal activity, pretty shut house if you ask


    Damien Harrop Damien Harrop 9:16 pm 29 Aug 19

    Ray Ez drunk driving directly effects the safety of those around you, pill taking only effects the user. Whilst both are illegal, it's far from an even comparison.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 10:00 pm 29 Aug 19

    How’s lagoons?

    Imants Ezergailis Imants Ezergailis 11:25 am 31 Aug 19

    David Murn : So it is definitely NOT user pays!

    Damien Harrop Damien Harrop 3:59 pm 31 Aug 19

    Imants Ezergailis how are you pulling that?

carpediem carpediem 12:00 pm 29 Aug 19

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.

carpediem carpediem 11:54 am 29 Aug 19

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

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 11:28 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.

Chris Cross Chris Cross 10:41 am 29 Aug 19

If you're foolish enough to put something in your mouth and not really have the faintest idea what its contents are (knowing that it's entirely possible the contents have been cut by god knows what to stretch out the profit), then by all means prove Darwin's Theory of Evolution to all of us. I hope the Government doesn't pay a single cent to this. DRUG USER PAYS. If you simply must take unknown drugs because your mental capacity doesn't understand the risk, do it on your own dime in your own time. I feel sorry for the loved ones of these morons who will live the rest of their lives mourning the death of their drug user offspring. Selfish. Illogical. Undeniably stupid.

    Dominique McKinnon Dominique McKinnon 10:59 pm 29 Aug 19

    Soo you will support it if the government isn’t paying for it?

    Human brains can understand risk and still follow a course of action that exposes that person to the risk they know about. People smoking do that with every cigarette. Young people can understand the risk about drug taking and yet will still take drugs. We know the current approach of “don’t do drugs they are bad” hasn’t stopped people from taking them. Every country is unable to keep drugs out their prison system - how exactly are we to keep drugs away from young people in community? And if we can’t do that, isn’t it better to seize the opportunity and use the contact point with the young people (like when they present at the festival to have their pills tested)as a chance to educate them? Your attitude and approach is writing people off people without giving them any space or chance to come around to another way of thinking. I hope the government, and community, does get behind this approach and continue with substance testing. I won’t give up on our young people. And I support new approaches to harm minimisation.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 11:30 pm 29 Aug 19

    Dominique McKinnon, yes... I'll certainly support it if the cost of implementation is paid for by the fools it serves. Make the event organisers pay for it, and then they can pass on those costs in the ticketing prices. All those catchy phrases like "seize the opportunity and use contact points", and "harm minimisation" sound great, but at the end of the day just because drugs are available in prisons and to young people, doesn't mean we should make it easier and more convenient for them to use. Pill testing is not "education". Drug users know the risks acutely already. They are perfectly aware of the dangers yet choose to continue to take drugs anyway. Pill testing allows users to test their pills, and gives them confidence to use it in a safer environment. It's reassurance that what they are taking is relatively OK. And your analogy with cigarettes isn't a good one. a) One cigarette won't kill you, and b) It's controlled in its manufacture and supply. Unless you are proposing drugs to be made legal (I hope not), comparing a controlled drug to a illegal one isn't accurate. These people don't need "space or chance to come around". They need a reality check. And seeing someone drop dead in front of them frothing and convulsing on the ground in agony will educate them in an instant. That one death (by that person's own hand) will educate hundreds, if not thousands of others. I support stronger laws and police powers, and tougher penalties as better approaches to harm minimisation. Cigarette use is dropping every year because pricing is going through the roof. If you want to lower drug use, make the cost of using it and possessing it so high that less people choose to have anything to do with it.

    Olwen McNeill Olwen McNeill 11:39 pm 29 Aug 19

    Chris Cross ok then why should any tax dollars go to people who smoke and get cancer or people who drink to excess and then need a liver transplant.

    Or if you fall off your bike and break your leg why should tax dollars pay for medical attention.

    A very biased one eyed view 🤨

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 11:41 pm 29 Aug 19

    Olwen McNeill because in regards to cigarette use they are paying for it upfront. Falling off your bike is accidental... accidents happen and that's why tax dollars are there to help them. Unless you can demonstrate how popping a pill is accidental ;) ?

    Olwen McNeill Olwen McNeill 11:43 pm 29 Aug 19

    Chris Cross testing is meant to help save lives and it will help do that. If it helps save a few young kids who don’t really think it through and/or know better then it’s worth it.

    I don’t understand the issue here. Cars were made safer for people to use and this is no different. Making changes to processes to make things safer. It’s the easy and logical approach to take.

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 11:53 pm 29 Aug 19

    Olwen McNeill driving a car isn't illegal. Technology makes cars safer due to accidents happening. Your examples in comparing illegal drug use to falling off of a bike or driving a car aren't logical. But if you continue to use them I'll happily do so as well. Using the car analogy more accurately: There are speeding laws. Going above them is illegal due to safety. Your logic states that people should be allowed to go as fast as they like- just make the cars safer. That's wrong. People who follow the road rules have a greater chance of staying alive. Driving a car is necessity. Accidents happen, and technology is there to save as many of those as possible who are simply unlucky. Taking illegal drugs is NOT a necessity. It's worse than speeding and dying in an accident, because there is NO safe pill popping 'speed'. Just one can kill you.

    Dominique McKinnon Dominique McKinnon 4:29 pm 30 Aug 19

    Chris Cross every person that presented to have their pills tested was also counselled and provided information about the risks drug taking. So yes - pill testing is alongside education. When you consider that about 20% of the people that presented to have their stuff tested were under the age of 18 it becomes very clear about what is at stake here. People are going to take drugs - that hasn’t changed with all of the prohibition approaches in all of the years. It is time to try something different.

    I am not using ‘catchy phrases’ when I advocate for harm minimisation - having a contact point with those young people (and remember how many were under 18) we absolutely need to provide the education and opportunity for young people to learn. You cannot expect a child or young person to make perfect life choices when their brains are literally wired to take risks. We can’t write them off and expect them to make the choices of someone with more life experience. We have to seize the opportunity to educate where we can. It isn’t a catchy phrase.

    My example of risk and smoking is still valid. Adults make the choice to smoke despite the associated risks (of addiction, disease and death) being well known. Knowing a risk does not necessarily prevent a person from taking a course of action anyway.

    I hope this makes sense, happy to discuss further 🙂

    Chris Cross Chris Cross 7:01 pm 30 Aug 19

    Dominique McKinnon whilst I greatly appreciate the time you and other commenters have given to type well thought out and articulated responses, I'm afraid it's a 'happy to agree to disagree' from me :). As a parent I get that kids will be kids. I also get that experimentation and risk taking is a part of growing up. We've all been there and done that. But there's a line... a difference between drinking alcohol, having a cigarette, or even having a joint- vs the wilful consumption of a manufactured compound with unknown and very dangerous ingredients. The later can and does kill people with just one exposure. I know my kids will more than likely be exposed to the temptation of taking pills, and I'm not blind to that risk or delusional to the notion that my 'little angels' will always make the right choices. But in this sphere, I am confident they know the great risk of taking just one pill. It's literally Russian Roulette. Take the wrong one and you're dead. Everyone knows this already regardless of age. It's not a matter of maturity or age, you can ask any child whether they should put an unknown pill into their mouth and the answer will be the same. It's a reckless game that any person (young or old) chooses to play with their lives. And if that's the game they want to play, that's fine. But the cost of playing should be theirs, not mine. Pay to play ;).

    Dominique McKinnon Dominique McKinnon 9:56 pm 30 Aug 19

    Chris Cross okey, still sounds like you are open to the substance testing and I am happy with that. Totally appreciate your differing view in terms of who pays to keep our young people safe; and have most definitely appreciated your respectful discussion. It’s a change from other exchanges I have had with a few other people on this topic! Enjoy your weekend 🤗

Grimm Grimm 9:34 am 29 Aug 19

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

    HardBallGets HardBallGets 10:36 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.


    Grimm Grimm 10:23 am 30 Aug 19

    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.

Rachel Greene Rachel Greene 8:35 am 29 Aug 19

🤔How about instead of pill testing, we charge people with having illegal drugs, after all drugs are illegal

    Natalie Porter Natalie Porter 9:34 am 29 Aug 19

    People who test there drugs are more likely to dob in the person they got it from, the testing also helps them track the supply chain. So in the end people are being arrested and we will reduce the amount of drugs in Australia

    Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 11:37 am 29 Aug 19

    You know they've been doing that and it didn't work?

    Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 11:38 am 29 Aug 19

    It's kinda of why they're doing this

    Damien Harrop Damien Harrop 8:57 pm 29 Aug 19

    Rachel Greene how about we criminalise alcohol and tobacco while we're at it. Think of all the lives we'll save.

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