Is pill testing a solution to drug overdoses?

Festival photo by Asher Floyd
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Pill testing, which identifies what is in the pill an individual plans to take, has become seen as a safety measure at some events because it allows for a more informed decision. Matthew Hickey writes.

By Matthew Hickey.

As the news media focuses on problems arising from increased use of methamphetamine, or Ice, many young people are also being seriously affected by drugs commonly available in nightclubs and at festivals such as ecstasy, say health professionals.

Director of the National Drug Research Institute, Professor Steve Allsop, says society can be single-minded.

“We tend to focus on a single drug, and ignore the others,” he says. “It almost becomes an argument of this drug is worse than this drug.”

Earlier this year New South Wales Premier Mike Baird took a stance against pill testing after organisers of music festival Stereosonic welcomed the idea.

Pill testing, which identifies what is in the pill an individual plans to take, has become seen as a safety measure at some events because it allows for a more informed decision.

The Australian Drug Foundation estimates about 11 per cent of the population aged over 14 have used ecstasy, whereas only 2.5 per cent say they have used it in the past year.

“I think a lot of people have the belief that everybody is doing it, but in fact it is still a minority of people,” says Allsop.

As a researcher in the area for 30 years and director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Allsop says Australians need a better understanding of ecstasy use.

Many doctors in Australia have pushed for the concept to be used around the country at events like Stereosonic. But with two ecstasy-related deaths in the past year at the festival, the concept is not being well received by all.

Emergency physician and Harm Reduction Australia advocate Dr David Caldicott is in favour.

“It (pill testing) would reduce the amount of drugs being consumed at music festivals and give us a much faster insight into what drugs are emerging on the market,” he says.

Caldicott has witnessed the trial of many different ways to combat or make safer the use of drugs such as ecstasy.

“I tend to ‘fight’ drugs in the same way as I ‘fight’ furniture – I don’t. I think that people who prosecute the war on drugs have rarely seen the front line.”

Caldicott says those who believe a zero tolerance/prohibitionist avenue is the way forward need to better understand the issue. “We need to grow up and accept that drug use in Australia is inevitable, and start from there.”

Allsop argues that pill testing does not make the drug safer so more needs to be done.

“Just because it’s pure ecstasy that you’ve bought, doesn’t mean that it’s safe,” he says.

Rob Foran, a general manager at The Drug Detection Agency, says his company’s testing finds about 7 per cent of pills test positive, and about 10 per cent of those are for amphetamines, which includes ecstasy.

The Drug Detection Agency is a franchise involved in workplace drug testing, policy, and education. Foran, who is based in the Dandenong North office, one of many across Australia and New Zealand, says ecstacy may taken “a bit of a back seat”.

This may be warranted, he says, as Ice is so problematic.

“In 12 weeks you can be hooked on ice. You can be smoking Ice by yourself just to keep going in 12 weeks. It is unlikely that you would be sitting in your room taking ecstasy by yourself,” he says.

Foran doesn’t see pill testing as the way forward as there are potential legal and insurance problems.

“Where does the responsibility lie if a tester says a pill is ‘all good’ and a user consumes it and then dies? Who sets up the testing tent at a festival? We are possibly talking life and death here. I wouldn’t want to be involved at that level, even if it is a free service. Surely they are liable to a degree?

Allsop reminds users to be careful. “Look after your mates.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance/drug abuse you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.