Photo: Experts said that in the long term pill testing can influence the market and give paramedics and police important information about what drugs are out in the community. (boodoo: Flickr)
By Claudia Long
With many music festivals still to come in 2018, including the very popular Splendour in the Grass this weekend, the perennial debate over pill testing in Australia kicks on with health professionals, politicians and commentators frequently weighing in.
Australia's first pill testing trial, held at Canberra Groovin' The Moo this year, saw plenty of critics come out of the woodwork saying testing results in more drug taking and higher rates of drug-related harm.
But there is no solid evidence to show that pill testing leads to partygoers taking more drugs and dying. In fact, there are multiple studies and trials indicating pill testing often results in less drug taking.
'Meth' wasn't what it seemed
At the Groovin' The Moo trial in April, 12 per cent of patrons said they would use less of their drugs. This included one user who thought he had a sample of "meth" but in fact had lethal stimulant drug n-ethylpentalone which has been linked to deaths overseas.
Both testers and ambulance staff on site said pill testing did not result in changed crowd behaviour and there was a noted increase in disposal of drugs, with 43 per cent of patrons said it would likely result in them changing their behaviour.
In a set of emails released by the ACT Government after the event, ACT Ambulance's Toby Keene said "other than possibly an increase in the amount of illicit substances discarded, there is no evidence of decreased presentations to site health services... though security reported a number of pill bags discarded on site. This is unusual in my experience and likely attributable to the pill testing."
Two reasons punters may get their pills tested
Dr David Caldicott, clinical senior lecturer at the ANU Medical School and member of Calvary hospital's emergency unit, led the pill testing team at Groovin' the Moo after pushing for pill testing at festivals for a number of years.
According to Dr Caldicott, there are two things that change young people's minds about drug taking: "The idea that what they're taking could kill them and the idea that they've been ripped off."
"We're able to provide both of those messages," he said.
"What we can do is we can change — and it's quite clear that we do change — how people consume the drugs to such a way that they are unlikely to get hurt."
Research from overseas similarly suggests that pill testing can change people's decisions around drugs resulting in reduced harm to users.
In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had effected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.
Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology with Durham University who led the trials, told the ABC: "About one in five service users give us further substances of concern to throw away after hearing their test result."
A 2003 German study overseen by the Bonger Institute of Criminology at the University of Amsterdam found a bad test result was more likely to result in reduced drug taking.
And a survey by Check !t, a pill testing service in Austria, found that about half of those who had their pills tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn't consume the drug if it was found to contain harmful substances.
Pill testing's hidden benefit
According to the EU's Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction: "Personal contacts with well-informed peers or professionals employed by drug-checking services are believed to be much more effective at persuading drug users to pay attention to preventive information and change their behaviour positively."
And similar results were returned from Switzerland's Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction.
In light of this significant body of research, many medical organisations support the introduction of pill testing, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), given its potential to reduce drug related harms for users and the community at large.
According to testers and healthcare professionals, pill testing not only gave users a chance to know what they're really taking but also to engage with health professionals about their drug use outside of a very formal medical setting.
"The pill testing itself, obviously there's some benefit from identifying what's in the products themselves but nobody pays any attention to what I think is the hidden benefit, which is being able to talk to young people in a medical environment, about their drug consumption," said Dr Caldicott.
Dr Measham agreed, telling the ABC one of main benefits from drug checking was connecting with users. No mean feat, given that around nine in 10 of The Loop's users have never spoken with a healthcare professional about their drug or alcohol use before.
Australian drug consumers 'well ripped off'
Experts said that in the long term pill testing can influence the market and give paramedics and police important information about what drugs are out in the community.
Research from Berlin and Switzerland found that after pill and powder testing was implemented, the actual ingredients of tested pills corresponded more and more to the expected ingredients of those drugs, rather than containing mostly contaminants.
According to Dr Caldicott this could be mirrored in Australia, and Canberra seems to have a fairly high rate of people being sold substances they didn't think they were buying.
"In any market globally there's about a 20 per cent 'dud' rate, in terms of pills that don't contain any psychoactive products. In our series, it seemed that this was about 50 per cent, so young consumers in Australia are getting well ripped off," he said.
During the Canberra trial the pill testing unit identified two substances linked to overdoses in Europe and New Zealand. One of those substances — n-ethylpentalone — hadn't previously been known to be available in the ACT and the pill testing team was able inform health authorities in real time.
"When we completed that analysis of the n-ethylpentalone, the healthcare commander of the festival and the chief health officer of the Territory knew about it within five minutes," Dr Caldicott said.
"No hospital, no law enforcement, nothing and nobody that works it out that fast, and that is part of the beauty of this process," he said.