Pill testing shows clear harm reduction benefits


Up to one in five people who had pills tested at UK festivals had a different drug to the one they thought they’d bought

Findings from UK trials have been presented for the first time at the APSAD Scientific Alcohol and Other Drugs Conference in Melbourne this week, providing new evidence that drug safety testing has harm minimisation benefits.

Pill testing also provided valuable real time information on drug consumption and composition, says said Professor Fiona Measham, Professor of Criminology in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, who presented the results.

Drug safety testing was first offered by Prof Measham’s charity, “The Loop,” at the UK’s Secret Garden Party and Kendall Calling festivals in 2016. This year, it was rolled out to three more festivals, all run in collaboration with police and festival organisers.

The results have been striking, she says.

At Secret Garden Party, the number of drug-related hospitalisations plummeted from 19 to one. At the BoomTown festival, drug-related medical incidents reduced by a quarter, according to onsite paramedics.

The data shows that one in five people found they did not have the drug they thought they had.

Substitutes included ground up anti-malarial tablets, household cleaner, paracetamol and concrete.

Upon receiving this news, around a fifth of people handed over all their drugs for disposal, while another fifth – who didn’t have their drugs on them – said they would dispose of them themselves.

Around two in five said they would take a smaller amount of their drug and refrain from mixing it with other substances.

For the vast majority of people this was the first time they had ever discussed their drug use with a service, with some asking for onward referral to drug services as a result.

At the Kendall Calling festival, it was uncovered that N-ethyl pentylone was being mis-sold as ecstasy.

This long-lasting stimulant can result in agitation, paranoia and raised pulse and blood pressure that remained elevated even after being given intravenous sedatives.

Festival goers, police and paramedics were all alerted, with at least one life being saved and numerous hospitalisations avoided as a result. 

 “We now have robust data in terms  how we deliver the service,  the outcomes for individuals, the outcomes for festivals and the benefits to police and health services,” says Prof Measham.

“Our results show that drug safety testing can educate and empower users and recognises users as agents of change. 

“It can also make a significant contribution to broader drug policy.

“New psychoactive substances are proliferating and flooding international drug markets and we’re facing an opioid crisis with fentanyl contamination.

“Drug safety testing can play a part in addressing these challenges. It’s not just about festivals, it’s not just about night clubs, it’s about how we can identify contaminants along the whole illegal drug chain in order to reduce harm, hospitalisations and hopefully, even deaths,” she said.

In Australia, harm miminisation proponents including The Roaming Pharmacist co-founder Liam Murphy have called for pill testing to be conducted at festivals.

But efforts to introduce a trial service have been stymied, reportedly by government pressure.

Canberra’s Spilt Milk Festival (to take place on November 23) was to have included free pill checking, organised by Harm Minimisation Australia.

But the organisers discovered the trial had been dropped – over social media.

Harm Minimisation Australia President Gino Vumbaca told the AJP last month that while the trial had widespread support including from the territory government, there were figures in the Federal circle that opposed the trial.

We have the support of the ACT government, police, we negotiated with cabinet, went through a long process to review how it was going to be done. All of that. The government is committed to it.

“There was only one opinion against it and that was from the Federal Government.”

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