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ACT government praised for stance on pill testing at festivals

“Despite the large army of police around and within youth music dance events, psychoactive drugs are always readily available.”

BY Max Mairata

After six months of background negotiations, the ACT government has taken a step towards pill testing. The government is not ruling out the initiative being employed later this year at the Spilt Milk youth music and dance event in the ACT in December 2017.

CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation Matt Noffs and drug law reformer Dr. Alex Wodak have praised the ACT for carving out a reputation as the most enlightened government in Australia. Its stance on trialling pill testing at festivals continues the Territory’s progressive agenda on human rights and marriage equality.

Many experts in the drug field, including the Noffs Foundation, have been negotiating behind the scenes with the ACT government to begin a pill testing trial for six months in 2017.

“This will be a first for Australia although about twenty other countries now allow pill testing, some for almost twenty years.  Despite the large army of police around and within youth music dance events, psychoactive drugs are always readily available,” said Noffs.

“But because this drug market is unregulated, the content and dose of the drugs sold is always a gamble. For the last few years in Australia, every summer, during the youth music dance season, half a dozen young people die and scores are admitted seriously ill to hospital.”

“The principle of pill testing is simple. Young people provide a tiny proportion of their pills or powder. This sample is then inserted into a standard laboratory chemical analysing machine, which quickly identifies the constituents. Some machines can also estimate the dose of the ingredients and the presence of any dangerous contaminants. Most young people discard their drug after the testing shows that the substance is dangerous. This interaction between the testing team and the client provides an opportunity for harm reduction education. The presence of pill testing at these events helps to drive out the more risky drugs and potentially prevents hospitalisation or death.”

It is understood the ACT government will undertake careful analysis before the trial is confirmed.

For now, Dr. Wodak is relieved that pill testing is finally moving from debate to policy to practical on-the-ground interventions.

“Based on the international evidence, citizens can be confident that the trial will be very positive. If it is successful, then there is no reason why pill testing should not become available and lawful in all states and territories in the next few years.”

Despite the illegal status of psychoactive drugs such as ‘ecstasy’, Australians are among the heaviest users in the world. Unfortunately, the ecstasy available widely varies in purity and is frequently laced with dangerous adulterants.

Thus, pill testing at music festivals provides an opportunity to better educate people on safer usage practices and allow them to make informed choices.

It’s hardly a radical idea. Comprehensive pill testing services are legal and readily available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain, France and Switzerland.

Its effectiveness is grounded in strong evidence. Studies suggest pill testing promotes safer drug taking practices to those already using drugs without resulting in a rise in the number of people who use drugs.

Pill testing has also been shown to alter the ‘black market’ in positive ways, with products identified dangerous being phased out of the market. Research from an EMCDDA (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) Scientific Report shows that the ingredients of tested pills increasingly began to correspond to the expected components over time.

Visits to pill-testing booths also create a vital opportunity to provide education and support for recreational drug users in a non-confrontational manner. They enable drug services to identify and establish contact with people who are at a higher risk of developing abusive drug patterns, so they may intervene before the individual’s drug use escalates.

Research from the Drug Advisory Council of Aust (DACA) shows young Australians are highly supportive of pill testing. More than 82% of the 2300 Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council of Drugs in 2013 supported its introduction.

The results are consistent with our youth stance on drugs. They want access to better information, and they want to make informed choices.

Despite this, Victoria and New South Wales’ Premiers claim pill testing would implicitly endorse drug use.

The respective Premier’s plan to continue controversial deterrent measures, including the use of strip searches, sniffer dogs, antidrug messaging and zero tolerance policing.

Many argue sniffer dogs and strip searches are not only ineffective but dangerous. In New South Wales sniffer dogs are most often used, and around 75% of all searches fail to establishing possession of drugs. Furthermore, a 2006 NSW Ombudsman report found some users respond to the sight of sniffer dogs by consuming all their drugs at once, potentially causing an overdose that would have otherwise been avoided.

In conclusion, pill testing would allow drug services to capture long-term data about the actual substances present in the drug scene. It would create the potential for an early warning system beyond immediate users. As new psychoactive substances that may be used as adulterants continue to appear, without proper testing services, many people are being exposed to unnecessary risk.


Materials sourced:

Gregory, K 2017 ‘Pill testing at music festivals needed after rave overdose, doctors say’, ABC News, 4 January, available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-03/drug-testing-calls-after-rave-overdose-scenic-rim/8159864

Ritter, A 2014 ‘Six reasons Australia should pilot pill testing party drugs’, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, available from: https://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/blog/six-reasons-australia-should-pilot-%E2%80%98pill-testing%E2%80%99-party-drugs


Fraser, Tim 2017 ‘SSDP Australia’s statement in support of pill testing’,  13 Jan 2017, available from: http://ssdp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/SSDP-Australia-Position-Statement-Pill-Testing.pdf


DACA, ‘Ecstasy’, Drug Advisory Council of Aust, available from: https://www.daca.org.au/index.php/illicit-drugs/ecstasy

Kriener, H 2001 ‘An inventory of on-site pill-testing interventions in the EU’, EMCDDA Scientific Report, available from: file:///C:/Users/asus/Downloads/pill_testing_report.pdf

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