Is pill testing the answer to Australia’s drug problem?

Pill testing may give users a false sense of security, say experts

Pill testing may give users a false sense of security, say experts

Passing a joint, popping a pill; plenty do it, it’s nothing new. Getting a few caps is just part of the price of a festival.

2016’s National Household Survey found 43% of Aussies aged 14 and up had used an illicit drug at some point in their life.

But there are plenty of horrors stories to go with the stats. In the past decade, 12 young Aussies have died of drug-related deaths. Nathan Cross of the ABC brought to our attention that it’s the worst time in a generation to start taking MDMA. Back in the 90’s, MDMA was about five times weaker – and not laced with other sneaky substances. Yes, ketamine, we’re looking at you.

So, is there a solution to this dangerous problem? Do we even want there to be a solution? Festivals are already littered with police officers and sniffer dogs. Anti-drug schemes infiltrate schools in the form of brochures, presentations and the health class curriculum.

So, we’re at least absentmindedly aware of the dangers. Then why do so many of us still do it?

For Ashlea, 20, it’s a no-brainer. She told us, “with MDMA, it makes me instantly happier and I’m not really aggressive or sad on it. Like it’s always a good time, I’m more social and I’m less nervous.”

This good time obviously overcomes the risk of criminal charges. In the ACT, simple drug possession offences can equate to $5000 fines and two year’s imprisonment. However, these transgressions may be out-shone by the “she’ll be right” and anti-authoritarian culture that’s breed into all Australians.

To give credit where it’s due, the Aussie music culture also heavily endorses drug and alcohol abuse. It’s no secret a lot of our local musicians love a good sesh. A majority of the music created by our artists and played at these festivals is filled with lyrics winking at drug use. Or explicitly, with good old Ruby Fields telling us she “couldn’t stay for cones ‘cause I drove.”

Lauren Denison, 22, witnessed one prominent band snorting lines off their drum set during one of their gigs. Sophie Bayley, 18, watched an intoxicated a well-known singer tripping and falling across the stage during a Laneway show. Other fans in the crowd were laughing, saying “he’s cooked.” Evidently, this kind of behaviour is pretty exciting to watch and pass on to our friends. It normalises drug use; if our Aussie legends, our role models are doing it, why wouldn’t we?

What we really need is a tactic that meets Aussies in the middle, something that won’t just go in one ear and out the other.

Canberra’s newest initiative, pill testing, may be the answer. It did manage to get seven people to throw away their own drugs in 2018’s Groovin The Moo.

So, what is this new tactic? How did they get Aussies to part with their drugs – is hypnotism involved?

Pill testing involves post-doctoral chemists – who have a license to handle illicit drugs – using Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FTIR) inside a Pill Testing tent in the medical area. The pill is photographed, weighed and measured and then tested under FTIR. This technology takes a sample and then matches the compounds found in the pill to its database of almost 30,000 substances.

Participants must sign a waiver that acknowledges no drug is 100% safe before entering. Whilst the pill is tested, counsellors and chemists speak with them on the issues of drug use. At the end of the process, the pill is either labelled white, yellow or red. These colours mean; what you expected, different to what you expected or associated with increased harm, overdose or death respectively.

The best part of this testing, it puts the responsibility on the person. It hands them the facts, makes them informed and puts the responsibility on the individual.

But according to toxicologists, Andrew Leibie and Dr John it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In a recent article from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, they question the accuracy of FTIR: it doesn’t identify dosage level. This technology also struggles to pick up poly-drug mixtures and newer compounds.

New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian is also against it. She told ABC, “pill testing gives people a false of security. Pill testing doesn’t deal with overdoses, pill testing doesn’t deal with the fact what is safe for one person isn’t safe for another person.”

Nevertheless, pill testing could be something Australia is seeing a lot more of. In August, the Victorian Greens proposed a bill to legalise pill testing as early as next year. This legislation involves a two-year trial, with a testing facility to be stationed at all music festivals held in this state as well as a fixed location. It’s only after more trials are conducted, that Australia will know if this is an effective strategy.