Inside Canberra’s pill testing tent

Groovin the Moo. Image: Groovin the Moo via Facebook.
Groovin the Moo. Image: Groovin the Moo via Facebook.

More than three in five Groovin the Moo patrons who used the pilot pill testing facility were surprised by their results

The final report into the pilot service has been released by the STA-Safe consortium following the April pill testing trial at the music festival’s Canberra leg.

The purpose of the pilot was to effectively test a “proof of concept”, the final report states, with many questions to be answered – such as whether it was possible to deliver such a “front of house” pill testing service, whether patrons would use it, and whether law enforcement would be able to operate in a way which let them undertake their duties, but also to allow the facility to be operated.

The report points out that as final approval to conduct the pilot was only given two to three days before Groovin the Moo Canberra, there was little time to test operating procedures.

Despite this, patrons were able to be given privacy, with entrance to the tent facility designed so that it would not be possible to see patrons entering (though a News Corp journalist managed to obtain photographs of patrons which were subsequently withdrawn from media reports).

Patrons were assessed for eligibility and none were found to be holding trafficable quantities of drugs, though the report says that it is unknown whether people holding large amounts left the queue before assessment.

In total, 129 people were assessed – including police or on-ground health staff who brought two orphan samples for testing – and two people were turned away due to intoxication.

“An important innovation, not previously deployed to the knowledge of the STA-Safe team, was a ‘catch-and-release’ system design to track any medical outcomes of those having their drugs tested,” the report states.

“The patron who was handling the drugs was given a hospital identification (ID) wristband with the tested sample’s unique identifier number written on it.

“Patrons were advised that they could discard the wristband or store it in their pocket or bag, however if they wore it and had an adverse reaction later, the ID would inform the ambulance or hospital that they wanted their test results to be accessed to assist in treatment.

“Overwhelmingly, patrons responded positively and many choose (sic) to keep them in their pockets. None of the wrist band were rejected; it is not known if they were later thrown away.”

ACT hospitals and ambulance staff had been made aware of the wristband system – and did not report any patrons with the wristbands presenting to hospitals, or requiring an ambulance, during or just after the festival.

Overall there were 85 presentations to the first aid provider and ACT Ambulance (ACTAS); 20 went directly to ACTAS, and most were for intoxication.

Three patrons were transported to hospital, two of which were for intoxication; neither of the intoxicated patients had undergone pill testing.


Interacting with patrons

While patrons were waiting for the results of their pill test, they were directed to a “brief intervention with a peer-based AOD counsellor,” and asked questions about their intent regarding drugs at the festival and what they expected their drug to contain.

Three-quarters of those who brought drugs for testing received some AOD brief intervention counselling.

When the chemical testing was finished, the results appeared on a screen attached to the testing equipment, which were then explained to the patient by a chemist and medical clinician.

A noticeboard was used to pin red results (where a substance was analysed and found to contain an active known to be associated with increased harm, multiple overdoses or death; or an ambivalent result was returned, or the substance contained functional groups known to be associated with significant harm), and some yellow results (where there was significant disparity between the result and what the patron thought they had bought) as well as some white results (where the substance was found to be what the patron expected).

This helped let patrons know what substances might be circulating around the festival, the report says.

It was “obvious” that the patrons looked at the board while they waited for their results and there were discussions about what was being discovered.

Only five patrons binned their drugs in the bin provided, but the report points out that due to perceived risks, it was in a highly public area. More drugs were also found discarded “in the vicinity of the medical precinct” but it is not known whether this was regarding any concerns about the amnesty bin.


The drugs themselves

The report states that drugs were submitted in a number of formats – 41 capsules, 25 pills, 10 in powder form, six crystals and one unclassified.

Weights ranged from 45 to 1107mg, with two of such a small weight that they were deemed unusable.

A number of “unexpected components” were unearthed: one sample presented as ketamine turned out to be triprolidine, while one “speed” sample turned out to be N-ethylpentylone, a stimulant which has been associated with significant harms including mass casualty overdoses in New Zealand and, more recently, deaths.

Of the 81% of patrons who thought they had bought MDMA, 45% (n=31) did have MDMA identified as the major component, but 54% had no compounds detected in their drug about the cut-off threshold used of 750 hit quality.

None of the three people who thought they had cocaine were found to have cocaine above the threshold, while only one of the two people who thought they had ketamine actually did.

Of the eight people who reported a range of other drugs they were expecting, half of the drugs did not contain these compounds above the threshold.

The analysis of concordance between what patrons expected, and what they had actually bought, found only 43% agreement, the report says, which indicates that “patrons’ knowledge of what they are taking is often not well founded”.

“This confirms that Australian MDMA has higher rates of substitution or impurities in the tablets sold on the unregulated market.”

After receiving their results, 58% said they intended to consume the drugs as planned, while 12% said they would use less, 5% said they would not use this drug but another drug, 7% said they were undecided and 18% said they would not use illicit drugs.

“There is a significant difference in the reported intended behaviour between those whose chemical tests showed reasonably high purity as opposed to those with tests indicating low purity,” the report says.

“Those with low purity test results were more likely to be undecided or intended not to use or were more likely to say they would discard their drugs.

“However, even those with a high purity report said that they would modify their behaviour with 12% saying they don’t intend to use and 18% report they will use less.”

Sixty-six per cent said they knew of others using the same drugs, and when asked if they would discuss their own results with these associates, 90% said yes.

“If we continue to do what we have been doing for the past 20 or 30 years in relation to drug policy,we will continue to get the issues that we face at festivals and other places every weekend and day in day out in Australia of kids putting themselves in harm,” said ACT chief health officer Paul Kelly.

“At least with pill testing, they have some information to guide their behaviour and we did see yesterday people changing their behavioural choices on the basis of the information they were given.

“The trial was a success and the lessons learned would be really valuable for the ACT and other jurisdictions around Australia.”

Read the full report here.

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