Health professionals estimate 3 Australians die each year from illicit drug overdoses at music festivals, with 6 reported deaths since September 2018 alone. Amid these deaths, medical professionals, politicians and law enforcement within Australia continue to debate the merits of pill testing at festivals.
Drug use by Australian festival-goers
Australians at music festivals have been shown to have a considerably higher rate of illicit drug use than is seen in the same demographics in the general population.
Australian National youth broadcaster triple j’s 2018 What’s Up In Your World surveyed 11,000 Australians aged 18 – 29. Of these, 55% responded that they had taken drugs into a music festival, with 83% responding they would use pill-testing if available. This is also consistent with a 2013 Australian National Council on Drugs survey of 16-25 year old Australians, of which 82.5% said they’d use pill-testing services if available.
A 2016 study at an Australian music festival found that nearly 75% of the 642 surveyed had used illicit drugs in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 85% either highly or somewhat likely to use a free drug checking service if offered.
History of pill testing in Australia
Pill testing trials were originally planned in Australia for ‘Spilt Milk’ festival in November 2017, but was cancelled a month before the festival due a reported dispute over authorisation.
Pill testing at a music festival was first trialled in April 2018 at ‘Groovin the Moo’ festival in Canberra. 125 people visited the pill-testing center, with 83 usable samples provided. 70 out of the trial’s 83 participants believed they had bought MDMA, but only 42 of the 70 pills tested contained any MDMA, with 32 of these containing a high purity. Around 40 per cent of participants at the first trial said they would change their drug consumption after finding out that what they were taking was cut with other substances.
The total cost of the trial was AUD $34,000, or AUD $272 per person visiting the trial.
What it Involves
Dr David Caldicott, an emergency medicine specialist who was involved with the tests in April 2018, describes a pill test:
1. When a person first enters the pill testing area (set up in the festival’s health tent), they are met by a “harm reduction worker”. This person explains the pill testing process and advises the patron that there is no safe level of drug consumption.
2. Next, the patron hands over a pill (or capsule or powder) to a chemist who photographs and weighs the substance, and explains that the test results apply only to the test sample (which will be destroyed in the testing process).
3. The sample — which may range from a thin scraping to an entire pill — is analysed using an FTIR spectrophotometer. This detects substances by passing an infrared beam through the sample and checking the result against a library of 30,000 substances.
4. The chemist labels the sample with one of three classifications: white — the substance is what the person anticipated; yellow — the substance is different to what the person anticipated; or red — the substance is known to be associated with increased harm / multiple overdoses / death (or the machine is unable to identify it, suggesting the drug is new).
5. This information is relayed to the person by a medical practitioner who outlines the potential dangers of each substance (that includes those identified a ‘white’ result).
6. The person is directed to a drug and alcohol counsellor who provides information about the risks of consuming the substance identified, and ways they can reduce their risk (e.g. not taking the substance, or taking a smaller dose).
7. Before leaving the tent, the person is advised of an “amnesty bin” in which they are able dispose of any drugs they have on them.
The arguments and opposition against pill testing in Australia
Some opposition against pill testing argues that pill testing may create a false sense of security, encouraging further drug use in festival goers. It has also been proposed festival based pill testing has limited capacity to accurately detect harmful substances, and sends contradictory messages about risks related to the use and possession of controlled substances.
- New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has not supported the idea as yet saying“It gives people a false sense of security” and “unfortunately, we know that pill testing won’t work because it will give people the green light to take substances which in the end could still kill them.” The Premier has however stated that “If there was a way in which we could ensure that lives were saved through pill testing we would consider it – but there is no evidence provided to the government on that.”
- Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also ruled out pill testing in the state, saying in January 2018 that “We are not having pill testing in this state, not under a government I lead anyway.”
- Andrew Leibie, a scientist with Safework Laboratories also raised concerns in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017. He contended that pill-testing is limited by “scientific realities” – expressing concerns about the inaccessibility to the required high-tech equipment, the limitations for what substances on-site tests can detect, difficult assessing substance concentration and dose, and inability to detect new synthetic drugs.
- Toxicologist Michelle Williams also wrote about similar concerns in January 2019, stating “mobile laboratory systems are not equipped to reliably detect ‘unknowns’ ” and “…incomplete testing options may lead the user to make a potentially fatal decision based on incomplete information.”
- The National Capital Authority, a government organisation has also stated that “The government does not support decisions to use illicit drugs, and does not in-principle support pill testing, as it could imply that illicit drugs are safe.”
The arguments and support for pill testing in Australia
- Dr David Caldicott refuted the concept that pill testing encourages drug taking. ‘‘The idea that in some way this is encouraging drug use is a nonsense.’’ Dr Caldicott said to the Sydney Morning Herald, “the first thing we say is that if you want to stay safe today from any harms associated with drug consumption, you shouldn’t use any drugs today.”
- Royal Australian College of General Practitioners President Dr Harry Nespolon has also supported proposed pill testing, saying “At the end of the day, pill testing is nothing to do with legalising and condoning drug use, but reducing harm – and ultimately saving lives.“
- The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia has released a position statement saying that they support the trials to inform the role of pill testing and drug checking, including at music festivals.
- Former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer, also supported the announcement of the first pill testing trial, saying that “any step we can take towards improving the safety of people who use drugs and improving their knowledge of what it is they’re intending to take, the better off we are.”
- In an Essential Report survey from December 2019, 59% of those polled supported pill testing, opposed to 17% that opposed the concept.