Nov 29, 2016

Do pill-testing kits encourage illegal drug use?

With summer music season upon us, the debate around pill testing has been revived. Should drug users be able to tell if they are consuming what they think they are, or does pill testing encourage drug use? Crikey intern Tamsin Rose reports.

Ecstasy pills
Pills, pingas, stingas, disco biscuits and googs are some of the names bouncing around as punters gear up for the festival season. But what goes into these widely, and wildly, consumed drugs, and do users have the right to know? Pill testing, or drug checking, aims to decipher what is in the drugs someone is about to take. The kits arm drug users with the knowledge of what is in their pills, which allows them to make an informed decision as to whether to take them. Unsurprisingly, not everyone wants illegal drugs to be tested for safety, which is making it harder for organisations to provide kits and gain data about their effectiveness in Australia. But as we head into summer music festival season, the debate around pill testing has come up again.

What is pill testing?

Pill testing is a way for people to  identify the present substances and find out the active ingredients in their drugs. As the drugs being tested are illegal, there are no ingredient lists and no safety standards. This strategy puts some power back into the users hands and aims to reduce the harm and deaths caused by drugs each year.

How does it work?

A sample of the drug, about the size of a match head, is mixed into a clear chemical solution in a plastic tube. Much like the pH tests in high school science, the liquid then changes colour to indicate the active ingredient present in the sample. A chart is provided to match against the colour to see if the drug is what the user thinks it is. The kits available for purchase online are basic and can miss certain substances. Advocates for the scheme want to see pill-testing booths set up at festivals and parties with laboratory-grade equipment, to better understand the active ingredients and help users decipher the results. A lot of different things are being found when tested: caffeine, paracetamol and ADHD drug Ritalin are all commonly found, as well as dangerous chemicals and unadvertised illicit drugs like ice. Is it legal to test illegal drugs in Australia? While the drugs people are testing are illegal, the testing kits are legal everywhere Australia. Many schemes include an "amnesty bin", where dodgy pills can be disposed of, which could leave those running the booths open to charges of drug possession. If people are lining up at a booth they could also be targeted by police. NSW Premier Mike Baird has promised to prosecute anyone associated with pill-testing trials in the state, despite many deaths in festivals around the state.

Can I expect to see testing kits at Australian festivals this year?

Yes, but not in any official capacities. Some NGOs are claiming they will covertly be giving out free basic testing kits at some festivals this year. Anyone can buy a pill-testing kit online or through retail outlets.

Who supports legalising pill testing?

The Greens. In March the Parliamentary Drug Summit, co-hosted by Senator Richard Di Natale, created the Canberra Declaration on Illicit Drugs. Among other points, the declaration said:
“Drug checking presents as a potentially valuable option for reducing harm at public events and governments should enable trials to be implemented as a matter of priority.”
Other advocates testing include NGOs like the Ted Noffs Foundation, Unharm, DanceSafe and Drug Policy Australia. Many academics working and researching in the area are also supportive of the testing. In 2014, UNSW Professor Alison Ritter said getting people into testing booths was an opportunity for education and at the very least, the country needs to pilot the scheme. “Australia should run a trial of pill testing and assess its benefits and harms so we can then make an informed choice about this intervention,” Ritter wrote.

Who opposes pill testing?

Most politicians currently in power in Australia are against the idea. The majority see it as condoning drug use. NSW Premier Mike Baird’s advice? "Don't do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don't take the pills and you'll be fine."

Where can you buy pill-testing kits?

There are many online stores providing pill testing kits to Australians:

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8 thoughts on “Do pill-testing kits encourage illegal drug use?

  1. paddy

    Good work Tamsin.
    Somebody should hire this intern.

  2. Petra Raptor

    Harm reduction usually requires abandoning moral judgements.

  3. Teddy

    What happens if a pill is tested by a government-sanctioned pill testing authority and it’s considered “safe” (ie contains no poisonous additives), and a person dies anyway? Is the government responsible for the death?

    I recall an infamous case in Sydney where an ecstasy pill killed a girl because she then drank to much water. It wasn’t the pill’s ingredients that left her parents without their beloved 16 year-old daughter.

    The government is in a devilishly tricky position here. And it wrong to make this a left/right political thing just because the Greens want to make life comfortable for their voters – or most likely – children of their voters.

    But pill testing will make life easier for dealers. They get a pill tested, then offer it as “safe” product to thousands of more party-goers. The State should just give drug dealers a grant.

    And who are those dealers? Bikkie gangs, the murderous thugs presently all over the front pages of the Daily Telegraph, Mexican Cartels…

    Make everything legal. Everything. Its the only place left to go.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      Of course you’re right Teddy. Only by making them legal would you be able to ensure standards in production etc, but what would the bikies and criminal elements do then?

      1. Teddy

        I’m way pass my pill-popping and (sigh) even party-going days, but I do remember when I was a teen, how “cool” drugs were and how anxious I was to try them.

        The appeal was the danger, that they were “the unknown,” (yes you might die), they were illicit and parents, the government and grumpy old men (like Mike Baird, then not even born) didn’t like them…

        Forty years later capitalism has done its usual thing, and turned a consumer product attractive to the young into a massive multi-billion dollar world-wide industry – with all the profits going to criminals and murderers.

        It’s hard to believe that this cruel inhuman industry is still “cool” – and that certain people are actively encouraging its growth by making the dealers work easier and even more profitable. And that is what the Greens and the pill-testing pushers are doing.

        Legalise everything. Everything. No half-baked nonsense like “medical marijuana, testing, Portugal (where drug selling IS still a crime). Just make the criminals unemployed. They’ll find something else to do…

  4. Khupert the Runt

    I echo Teddy’s point.
    You usually test FOR something. Unless you are able to test for all poisons I can’t see how anyone could rely on a drug testing device or process. Whilst I can understand even from my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry that in many drug processes common poisonous by-products are likely to be the obvious things to test for, it seems to me absurdly naive to assume because such likely contaminants are not present the drug is safe. Let alone assessing in what strength the active ingredient is present. I have no moral concerns about proper drug testing, but if I was a politician or a supplier of drug testing kits I would never endorse them as a means of reducing poisonings, because they just simply can never promise to do the job expected of them.

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    Thanks Mike Baird, more reactionary, bovine policy from him. Probably concerned that somebody, somewhere, is having a good time.

    Re the header, the answer is that nobody knows because nobody has the slightest idea how much drugs are being taken now.

    But suffice to say that it’s a lot, because these huge drug busts that the police so love to make a big deal out of (pun!) don’t have the slightest affect on market availability or price, apparently.

    But I wouldn’t know.

  6. AR

    As noted above, remove the Law. If drugs were legal the manufacturers would be liable for purity – currently, like bathtub gin, anyone with rdimentary chemistry can whip up some nasty crap, sell it and be gone by the time it is being ingested.

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