Pill testing saves lives

It is clear that the so-called “war on drugs” is not working. Over the past 100 years since it has been government policy, drug use and drug deaths have not decreased. The zero tolerance or “Just Say No” approach of Labor and Liberal governments is a failed and dangerous policy.  This is why, as a doctor, I support harm minimisation, because saving lives should be our first priority.

Zero tolerance and the criminalisation of all drug use has not stopped some young people taking drugs. Whether at house parties, clubs, bars or music festivals. But if pill testing and other harm minimisation was on the table, this would reduce the risk of injury and likely save lives. Pill testing is a simple way to reduce the harm from drug use. A scraping of the drug is mixed with a reagent so users know more about the content and purity of the the drugs they are about to consume. This lets them make a more informed choice.

In 2017, more than 20 young people were hospitalised, many in a critical condition, after consuming GHB at the Electric Parade music festival in Melbourne. In 2017, three people died and twenty were hospitalised in Melbourne after overdoses linked to MDMA consumption. In January 2018, there was a mass overdose of partygoers in Festival Hall in Melbourne. Nine people were taken to hospital, some in a critical condition, with Ambulance Victoria saying it was lucky there were not deaths on the spot. In September 2018, two young people died from overdoses at music festival Defqon in Sydney. Police said 700 people were treated by medical staff. The response from the Premier of NSW Gladys Berejiklian, “we will do everything we can to shut this down”. This is clearly a political and not a harm minimisation response. This approach puts young lives at risk.

And what about Victoria? In March 2018, the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into drug law reform, tabled its report recommending “onsite drug testing” at music festivals, to test substances to help health workers treat patients and issue public alerts as part of an early warning system. This is sensible harm minimisation. But Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews rebuffed the recommendation and said that pill testing is not an option. Last year the Greens introduced a bill to allow pill testing in the Victorian Parliament. Again, the Labor Government wouldn’t support it and ‘maintains its clear position against changes such as pill testing and decriminalisation of drugs.’

Pill testing has been used as harm-reduction in many European countries. Research from overseas shows there are three important benefits to pill testing. Firstly, what is in the drug, its content, purity and whether it is dangerous. Products found to be dangerous and subsequently became the subject of warning campaigns were found to leave the black market. Secondly, pill testing can change people’s attitudes and decisions around drugs, resulting in reduced harm to users. For example, in the UK, more than half of  users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said “test results had affected their consuption choice and many said they would dispose of their drugs or take less of them“. Thirdly, a visit to a pill-testing booth allows drug services to speak to and educate a population that is difficult to reach because they are not experiencing acute problems, but is nonetheless a high-risk group.

Earlier this year, Australia’s first pill testing trial went ahead at Groovin The Moo festival in the ACT. The trial was successful and found some lethal and unusual ingredients in what festival-goers thought was a party drug. Quantities of ecstasy, cocaine and ketamine were found which were “quite pure…[and of] high quality.”  However, more alarming were the two quantities of highly toxic and “absolutely lethal” chemicals N-Ethylpentylone, which is responsible for a number of mass overdoses around the world. This drug is a stimulant which causes “circulation problems, lethal heart palpitations and hallucinations that can cause dangerous behaviour.” Also found in a number of drugs were spray paint and toothpaste. The report following the pill testing trial at Groovin the Moo, was unequivocal, recommending further pill testing “as part of a commitment to harm reduction services“.

It is clear that the zero tolerance approach is not working and is putting young lives at risk. Drug policy of today is analogous to sex education of a bygone era where people were chided to abstain, to “just say no” instead of using safe contraceptives. As a young doctor, I saw the failure of these sex education policies in unwanted pregnancies and serious sexually transmitted diseases, even deaths from HIV/AIDS. Today, thankfully, abstinence is no longer accepted for sex education. And the same should be the case for drug policy.

Policing has not, and will not, stop some young people from taking drugs. Instead of zero tolerance, saving lives should be our first priority. This is why pill testing is so important to reduce harm and drug deaths.

Tim Read