What you should know about pill-testing

What you should know about pill-testing

Pill-testing is an important issue, and the Uniting Church is engaging in the discussion.

On 12 January, 19 year old Central Coast teen Alex Ross-King lost her life due to a suspected overdose at the FOMO music festival in Sydney. Police and NSW Health are awaiting the results of the postmortem and toxicology examination to confirm the details of the ingested substances.

The tragedy has reignited the debate on pill-testing at festivals, with Alex’s relatives pleading with the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to introduce this service at festivals as a way to save young lives.

Alex’s grandmother, Denis Doig, told Network Ten that action needs to be taken now.

“It’s such a small thing to do. It’s not hard (and) if it saves one life – one life is a life,” Ms Doig said.

Despite these pleas and growing pressure, the premier is standing firm and telling teens to just say no to drugs.

“Pill testing could unfortunately give people a false sense of security,” said the premier on Nine’s Today Show.

“The message to young people is do not take these tablets.”

While the premier remains adamant that pill-testing is not the way forward, pill-taking, particularly of MDMA (active ingredient in ecstasy) has increased the hospitalisations  of young people and in the last three months five people have died from overdoses at festivals.  Around 11,387 people attended the Sydney FOMO festival. Of the 146 attendees searched by officers, 54 people were found with drugs. The NSW Coroner has announced an inquest into the recent deaths.

Why pill-testing?

Although novel in Australia, pill-testing has been used as a preventative strategy in the Netherlands since 1992. In 1997 the Austrian government-sanctioned this service. Pill-testing is also prevalent in Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, France, and Spain. Since 1999, not-for-profit organisations in the US and Canada have provided pill-testing, with the same service offered in the UK since 2013. In New Zealand an independent volunteer group KnowYourStuffNZ operates pill testing at festivals, supported by the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Last year marked the first time professionally administered pill-testing was conducted in Australia during the Groovin’ the Moo festival in Canberra. The mobile laboratory at the festival conducted 83 sample tests. 70 people thought they had purchased ecstasy pills, yet 42 contained MDMA (active ingredient in ecstasy) and for 17 samples the main ingredient were fillers or cutting agents. Along with these fillers, caffeine, antihistamine, toothpaste, dietary supplements and oil were also found in the drug samples. One sample’s main ingredient was N-Ethylpentylone, which is a stimulant that has hospitalized 13 people in New Zealand.

Advocates for pill-testing maintain that the process gives the opportunity to educate young people and provide information about the fatal risks in order to change their behaviour and in turn potentially save lives.

How does it work?

The mobile laboratory is set up in the tent medical precinct of the music festival. Attendees have to line up and then sign a waiver which releases testers from liability.  A peer educator then ensures the attendee understands that the test only explains what is in the drug sample and does not guarantee the drug’s safety. A chemist photographs and weighs the drug sample and then uses an infrared spectrometer to determine what’s in the sample. The attendee then receives a final consultation with another peer educator on what their options are, now knowing the risks of the drug.

An emergency medicine consultant at Calvary Hospital in Canberra, Dr David Caldicott led the pill-testing trial in Canberra. He told the Sydney Morning Herald  that the process is not condoning pill-taking or drug use.

“I can’t fathom how anyone who is in regular contact with young people would believe, ever, that turning up with a shipping container, with some of the most-advanced technology available, with a team of doctors and chemists who, at the very get-go, tell the people presenting to the pill tester that they could die if they use drugs today – it’s beyond me how that encourages drug use,” Dr Caldicoltt said.

However, there is concern that the limitations of the mobile laboratory including not being able to detect new designer drugs and the concentration of the ingredients due to the on-site fast result turnaround.

Why is the Uniting Church discussing this issue?

The debate on pill-testing has been compared to to the contentious, but forward thinking establishment of Uniting’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in 2001. In the last 18 years, the MSIC has supervised one million injections, with not one death. Instead MSIC’s consultations with clients provide people who use drugs with an opportunity to overcome their addiction in a non-judgemental and health-focused environment.

Along with this, the Uniting Church’s NSW and ACT Synod in 2016 passed a motion that included calling on the government to invest in more harm reduction strategies and reform the drug policy.

Last year the Uniting Church NSW and ACT Synod and Uniting, backed by 58 organisations, launched the Fair Treatment campaign. The campaign looks to change the conversation and policy around drug addiction and to treat this as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. It focuses preventative strategies and harm reduction instead of just reactive strategies.

The Uniting Church NSW and ACT Synod Moderator, Rev. Simon Hansford, said the conversation and policy around people who use drugs needs to be more compassionate.

“Our faith compels us to nurture, support, care and offer hope and life for everybody in our society – especially those who are marginalised or disadvantaged, who are often those most affected by drug policy,” Rev. Hansford said.

In a media release Uniting Executive Director Tracey Burton said pill-testing needs to be considered as part of the solution because young lives are being lost “while we continue to debate the issues and cling to ineffective law and order policies.”

“We do not condone taking pills in the same way we do not condone drug injection; the primary goal in both instances is keeping people safe,” Mrs Burton said.

Uniting with the support of the Uniting Church NSW and ACT Synod has sent a letter to the premier and opposition leader calling for a pill-testing trial.

In the letter Ms Burton wrote that action needs to be taken immediately.

“We need the courage to do new things in order to save lives. In the debate about pill-testing the primary goal must be to keep people safe.

“There is enough evidence to, at least, start a process towards creating a trial of pill-testing and to run it prudently and evaluate its effectiveness,” Ms Burton wrote.

Melissa Stewart


Further Reading

Moderator’s Op-ED: We need to talk about drugs

Learn more about Uniting’s MSIC


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