Pharmacy pill testing could be ‘feasible’

A scene from the Adelaide leg of FOMO 19. Image courtesy FOMO via Facebook.
A scene from the Adelaide leg of FOMO 19. Image courtesy FOMO via Facebook.

Harm minimisation stakeholders and the family of a young woman who died over the weekend have urged politicians to trial pill testing

And community pharmacies could serve as a base for such testing, as occurs in Germany, says one pharmacist.

Alex Ross-King, a 19-year-old woman from NSW’s Central Coast, died in Westmead Hospital after attending the FOMO music festival on January 12 at Parramatta Park.

NSW Police said an investigation was now underway into Ms Ross-King’s death. Mainstream media report that police believe she may have consumed a substance before she died, possibly MDMA.

Her grandmother, Denise Doig, spoke to Ten Daily and urged NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to introduce pill testing at festivals in a bid to save lives. Ms Berejiklian has previously gone on the record repeatedly opposing such a trial.

“I’d like this to have some legacy, and that is to get these pills tested,” Ms Doig said.

‘In Germany pill testing is undertaken in pharmacies and I don’t think it is unrealistic to consider that the same may also be feasible in Australia.’ —Angelo Pricolo

“The reason I want the pills tested is, we’re not stopping them from being out there.

“Premier, please: can we have this pill testing done. It’s such a small thing to do, it’s not hard. Let’s try and get it out there.”

Matt Noffs, CEO of Ted Noffs Foundation and spokesperson for the Take Control Campaign—which is lobbying for what it calls “safer, saner” drug laws—said that parents around Australia, and Take Control, stand with Ms Ross-King’s family.

“Pill testing is a medical intervention,” Mr Noffs said. “It’s a doctor in a tent at a festival. It’s a practical step—a safety net that’s currently not there. Parents are desperate.

“I understand the Premier is in tough position. I know she wants the best for our young people. But I need her to listen to me right now—we are the experts. We know the evidence. The evidence is clear—this will save lives.

“It’s our leader’s job to do everything they can to stop deaths, reduce harm, make our kids as safe as possible.

“Young people can get drugs easily and don’t know what they are taking. ‘Just say no’ is a miserable failure. It simply doesn’t work.

“Thousands of people are standing up and asking the Premier to look at the evidence and pilot pill testing now,” Mr Noffs said.

However Ms Berejiklian has appeared on Channel Seven’s Sunrise reiterating her opposition to pill testing, despite being accused by presenter David Koch of being “dogmatic” on the issue.

“Pill testing doesn’t deal with overdoses,” the NSW Premier said. “Pill testing doesn’t say to one person, ‘this is going to kill you whereas for someone else it might be safe’.

“The evidence is that unfortunately these kids are dying from the ecstasy, the MDMA in those tablets.

“The best message we can send to them is these substances – the MDMA, the ecstasy – can kill you. Do not take these drugs.”

She said that a better approach would be improving access to medical attention at festivals, and urged young people to access such medical interventions if they notice a friend becoming unwell.

“Pill testing does not prevent overdose deaths… even if a substance is deemed safe,” she said.

Meanwhile late last year NSW Opposition Leader Michael Daley said that if elected, a Labor state government would convene a drug summit and not rule out testing recreational drugs at festivals.

Ms Ross-King’s death follows those of Joseph Pham and Diana Nguyen at Sydney’s Defqon. 1 music festival in September 2018; Callum Brosnan, at the Knockout Games of Destiny festival in December; and Josh Tam, at the Lost Paradise festival on NSW’s Central Coast, also in December.


Could pharmacy help?

Melbourne pharmacist and harm minimisation campaigner Angelo Pricolo has told the AJP that pill testing in community pharmacy could be an even better approach than such analysis at festivals.

“Currently the legalities of pill testing is unclear in most countries around the world,” he said.

“In Germany pill testing is undertaken in pharmacies and I don’t think it is unrealistic to consider that the same may also be feasible in Australia.

“It does not mean that pharmacies will necessarily need to purchase expensive analytical equipment, but we are well placed to act as an intermediary between pathology company and drug user.”

He said that some pathology companies have already expressed an interest along these lines.

“Logistically it could work and would provide access at many locations with a turnaround of probably a couple of days,” Mr Pricolo said.

“This is not perfect but could produce far more detailed analysis than a reagent test performed at a music festival. 

“Identification of a bad batch could save many lives, often unsuspecting young and sometimes experimental first time drug users.”

Only last week, the AJP reported that the National Australian Pharmacy Students’ Association (NAPSA) had released a position statement saying it supports the pill testing model proposed by the STA-SAFE consortium (which ran the Groovin the Moo trial in the ACT in 2018).

Pill testing could also take place at fixed locations outside festivals to protect people who use illicit drugs outside such settings, NAPSA said.

Stakeholders such as Matt Noffs and ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury have also suggested to the AJP in the past that pill testing via pharmacies could be feasible.

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1 Comment

  1. Jarrod McMaugh

    Important to note that testing at festivals in the format utilised by STA-SAFE (now Pill Testing Australia) doesn’t use reagent testing.

    They use analytical equipment that can detect the presence of multiple ingredients and adultarents

    It is worth reading the Groovin’ The Moo festival report about it –

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