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: