Pill testing in the community?

The debate about pill testing needs to expand beyond just music festivals, says the ACT’s Greens leader – and community pharmacy could be one place to run such programs

And Australian ecstasy has the highest rate in the world of unexpected ingredients, says drug law reform proponent Shane Rattenbury.

Mr Rattenbury recently encouraged colleagues in the ACT’s cabinet to consider pill testing not just at music festivals such as Split Milk, but on an everyday basis within the community.

Free testing of illicit drugs had been planned for the event, which took place in late November, but this was unexpectedly shelved six weeks out from the concert.

Mr Rattenbury later told reporters that what happened before Spilt Milk was “murky”.

“Whether it was the Canberra Liberals seeking to interfere through their colleagues on the Hill, or some other process, it’s unclear but it was a real missed opportunity to run pill testing at Spilt Milk where we had the key target audience,” he said at the time.

Now, Mr Rattenbury has told the AJP that pharmacists could potentially have a significant role to play in harm minimisation through testing illicit drugs.

“Whether it is at music festivals, dance parties, local venues or elsewhere, pill testing represents a chance to make these events safer,” he says.

ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury. Image: Facebook

But “people are not just taking pills at music festivals, and we have seen models overseas, particularly in the Netherlands, where having a permanent pill testing service regularly available in the community can make the service more accessible.

“By offering this service, we may also be more likely to get people to participate in a conversation about informed drug use.”

Mr Rattenbury says that a potential role for community pharmacists “needs to be further explored”.

“We welcome further conversations with community pharmacists, medical professionals and the broader community about how this kind of model could work in the ACT,” he says.

“I recently spent time in the Netherlands where I was able to witness interactions between pharmacists and clients.

“In assessing the size, colour and markings on pills, pharmacists were then able to broadly determine what the pills were. More importantly, pill testing provided an opportunity to engage and counsel potential drug users on potential risks of pill consumption.”

Recent data from the UK, presented at the APSAD Scientific Alcohol and Other Drugs Conference in November, showed that at one music festival, the number of drug-related hospitalisations plunged from 19 to one after pill testing was introduced; at another, drug-related medical incidents dropped by a quarter.

And one in five people found they did not have the drug they had paid for, the data showed – which may be a significant risk for Australians in particular.

Mr Rattenbury says the UK data is part of a “growing body of evidence” which “shows that pill testing can save lives and influence people who use drugs to make safer choices”.

“The data also further confirms that young people care deeply about their welfare, and while most drug takers are unaware of the origin and chemical make-up of their pills they are increasingly seeking out this information.”

Increasingly, harm minimisation proponents are worried about illicit drugs being unexpectedly contaminated with fentanyl.

“There is growing concern about this issue since we know that the MDMA content in an ecstasy tablet can vary widely and new synthetic drugs are constantly appearing on the market,” Mr Rattenbury told the AJP.

“Research has also shown that Australians are some of the highest consumers of ecstasy in the world, and that Australian ecstasy has the highest rate of unknown ingredients.

“We have also heard that in the absence of laboratory grade pill testing services, sales of personal reagent testing kits have spiked in the lead up to recent festivals. These kits can provide some information, but they are less accurate, they cover a smaller range of substances and by using them we miss an opportunity to get people talking with health services about their drug use.

“Laboratory grade pill testing is a better option and we should be using it.”

Harm minimisation proponents including The Roaming Pharmacist founder Liam Murphy have previously called for the profession and its governing bodies to consider supporting pill testing at festivals.

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