Pill testing could save lives

On-site testing of “party drug” pills could reduce drug use harms and possibly save lives, a new review suggests

Dr Andrew Groves of Deakin University has published an independent review of Australia’s National Drug Strategy in the open access Harm Reduction Journal, examining the evidence to support pill testing to reduce harm caused by illicit drugs such as ecstasy or methamphetamines at festivals, clubs and raves.

Pill testing involves party-goers handing over a sample of drugs they have bought to have them tested on-site by scientists and drug experts.

They receive information on the contents of the drugs they have bought, and then have the option of keeping them or anonymously handing them in for disposal.

“The most surprising finding of our research is that the evidence has clearly identified the inadequacy of existing punitive, zero tolerance strategies across several countries, and yet such policies often remain embedded in government legislative action,” says Dr Groves, a lecturer in Criminology who specialises in research on alcohol and other drug use.

“While we still need further evaluation of how best to implement pill testing and other harm reduction initiatives, the evidence suggests that they are useful and there is widespread support from the community and practitioners in the field.

“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality.”

In his review, Dr Groves evaluated examples of drug policies from around the world, including Portugal, where pill testing has been implemented by the government.

This was part of broader policy reforms which include the decriminalisation of drug possession.

He says that this resulted in drug use being treated as a public health concern, rather than a criminal issue; it also reduced problematic drug use and its related harms.

Another example was the chEckiT project in Austria, in which users were given information about the quality or purity of their drug.

Results from this program showed that two-thirds of drug users would not consume drugs which came back with a negative result, and would warn their friends against taking them.

A pill testing program in the Netherlands found the initiative did not increase the use of party drugs.

“Although considered radical at the time, these measures have been effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, and problems for drug users and the wider community,” says Dr Groves.

“The examples evaluated in this study support the idea that party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing, rather than criminal justice responses.”

In data from recent literature, he says he found evidence of increased consumption of more potent forms of party drugs such as MDMA and ice.

Dr Groves suggested that, in addition to the surveillance and monitoring efforts carried out under the current National Drug Strategy in Australia, pill testing could provide further data on the quality and content of the drugs people use and that this could be useful for monitoring changes in the drug market.

Pill testing data could provide more accurate information than current techniques, such as wastewater analysis, which could inform users on how to reduce drug-related harms and help authorities to influence the drug market, he says.

For example, the Netherlands’ Drug Information and Monitoring System, which used data from pill testing to accurately identify drug content, purity and potency, informed national warning campaigns, which has pushed dangerous, low-quality substances out of the market.

“We are calling for further collaboration between law enforcement and healthcare providers to ensure that they take appropriate action to reduce the harm caused by drugs,” says Dr Groves.

“It is important to focus on prevention, public awareness campaigns and education to shift cultural attitudes, so that use of party drugs is identified as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.”

Dr Groves points out that although pill testing cannot eliminate the harms of drug use, and cannot be used as a stand-alone solution, it could be a vital part of wider harm reduction strategy.

There is a need to ensure evidence-based approaches that are targeted, appropriate and cost-effective, and that will lead to reduced harms associated with illicit drugs, he says.

The call comes as a pill testing program intended to take place during the Groovin the Moo event in Canberra has come into question.

The Canberra Times reported recently that while the ACT Government and the University of Canberra – which hosts the event later this month – support the pill testing pilot scheme to be run by STA-SAFE, organiser support may not yet be obtained. Efforts to secure the scheme are ongoing.

Last year the organiser of the Spilt Milk music festival pulled out of a similar trial.

At the time, ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury expressed support not just for such a program at music events, but for pill testing in the wider community, which could be run out of pharmacies.

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