By Ugur Nedim and Zeb Holmes
In the wake of a spate of recent deaths at Australian music festivals, the mainstream media is starting to report on the potential benefits of pill testing – and politicians from the major parties are starting to listen.
The main sticking point seems to be the concern that pill testing sends the wrong message to drug users – that ‘it’s ok to take drugs’ – and will thereby result in increased illicit drug use. Indeed, this was the same concern expressed by alcohol prohibitionists when the unregulated backyard production of that drug resulted in large numbers of deaths by poisoning in the 1920s and early 1930s, whilst fuelling organised crime and doing little if anything to reduce demand.
There are also those who remain unconvinced that the ability to quickly have your drugs tested for potentially deadly ingredients can save lives, despite study after study in European countries finding exactly that – a finding that resulted in pill testing being included in the EU’s best practice guidelines.
The fact is the ‘war against drugs’ has long been lost, that young people are dying due to deadly fillers in their drugs and that the current ‘zero tolerance’ approach is not working.
And pill testing offers a valuable opportunity for professionals to engage with and educate drug users, and steer them towards help where appropriate.
Zero tolerance does not lead to a decrease in use
According to the 2014 UN World Drugs Report, Australians have the highest rate of MDMA (‘ecstasy’) consumption in the world despite our ‘zero tolerance’ approach to illicit drug use.
In 2015, it was reported that 8% of Australians aged 20 to 29 had used ecstacy in the preceding 12 months.
And sadly, Australian ecstasy has been found to contain the highest amount of unknown and potentially deadly substances, which many feel is partly to the fact that zero tolerance enables black market producers and suppliers to fill their tablets with whatever they want, without regulation.
In a study of ecstacy pills from several countries including the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, Australian tablets were found to contain the highest amount of ‘unknown ingredients’ as well as the highest amount of potentially deadly substances including PMA/PMMA, a highly toxic compound linked to deaths both in Australia and overseas.
Pill testing saves lives
A great deal of research has found that pill testing has had extremely positive results in a number of European countries, where lives have been saved through a shift in policy.
The Netherlands introduced pill testing in 1992, and it is now a fundamental part of the nation’s drug policy.
Government-sanctioned services have been in place in Austria since 1997, in Belgium since 1993 and in Switzerland since 2001. Pill testing is also available in Portugal, France and Spain.
The results in those countries have been unequivocal – all have seen reductions in deaths from overdoses, and in Portugal there have been no reported deaths since the introduction of the initiative.
Not-for-profit organisations have been testing in the United States and Canada since 1999, and in the United Kingdom since 2013.
In New Zealand, pill testing is offered at festivals by the volunteer group KnowYourStuffNZ, which is independent but supported by the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
This was the same set-up considered at Australia’s first professionally administered pill testing outfit at Canberra’s Groovin’ the Moo festival in April.
Pill testing does not lead to increased drug use
European studies have consistently shown that neither decriminalisation nor harm reduction initiatives such as pill testing lead to an overall rise in illicit drug use – in fact, the contrary has in some instances been seen as the rebellious appeal of drugs been replaced by education and support.
In terms of the effect of testing on individuals, studies in Austria found that 50% of those who had their drugs tested changed their consumption choices based on the results. Two-thirds decided not to consume the drug and said they would warn friends over a drug batch that generated negative results.
A Swiss study explained that pill testing services are often the first contact drug users have will social support, and that support can motivate individuals to participate in a consultation about informed drug use, which can lead to less or no use.
At the Groovin the Moo festival last year, it was found that just 42 of the 83 samples tested contained mostly MDMA – the active ingredient in the drug known as ecstasy. Seventeen of the samples contained known fillers and/or cutting agents as their main ingredient.
Other substances found included antihistamine, caffeine, dietary supplements, oil, “foodstuff” and toothpaste.
One man discovered that the main ingredient in what he thought was “meth” was actually N-Ethylpentylone, a stimulant responsible for the hospitalisation of 13 people in New Zealand.
Potentially deadly fillers were found in pills supplied by two people, both of whom voluntarily discarded the tablets in the amnesty bins provided.
The potential to save lives is self-evident.
A recent study found that 56.7% of NSW residents were in favour of drug testing at music festivals.
And a 2013 survey of 2,300 young Australians by the Australian National Council on Drugs found more than 82% supported the introduction of pill testing as a harm reduction initiative.
There is a strong argument that the benefits of introducing pill testing at music festivals greatly outweigh any negatives.