Seven deadly doses

groovin moo pill testing music festival illicit
The Canberra leg of Groovin the Moo 2019. Image courtesy Groovin the Moo via Facebook. Photo by Jordan Munns — at Exhibition Park in Canberra.

A new report into Australia’s second pill testing trial shows that double the amount of substances were tested this year – and some were potentially deadly

At the Canberra stage of the Groovin the Moo festival this year, held on Sunday 28 April, the Pill Testing Australia consortium ran a second pilot – and has now come out with 10 recommendations on the issue.

The report states that while preparations for the first Pill Testing Pilot in Australia in 2018, also held at Groovin the Moo, were “understandably sensitive and challenging” because it was so novel, the preparations for the second trial this year were “considerably easier”.

This meant that Pill Testing Australia was able to meet the higher demand it expected, the organisation said.

Around 20,000 patrons attended the Canberra leg of the 2019 festival, and the pill testing service was able to test 170 substances for 234 participants (some of whom arrived individually, and some as groups).

The predominant substance found was MDMA, plus – to a much lesser extent – cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine.

However seven dangerous substances containing N-ethyl pentylone (ephylone) were also identified, with patrons being alerted to the dangers of the substance.

N-ethyl pentylone, part of the “bath salts” (cathinone) stimulant group of drugs, has been associated with a number of deaths internationally. In the 2018 pill testing trial, two substances containing the drug were detected.

On learning about the potential harms from the substances they possessed, all patrons with N-ethyl pentylone used the amnesty bin to discard them.

Several samples contained less of the active illicit ingredient than the patrons expected.

The pill testing process used an instrument cut-off of 750 hit quality. Of the samples patrons expected to contain MDMA, only 67% were identified as MDMA based on instrument cut-off.

The remaining 49 samples (33%) returned nothing above cut-off, with 31 of these samples tentatively identified as MDMA with scores below cut-off. Of the 18 unknown substances, 12 (67%) were also identified as MDMA above instrument cut-off.

“In comparison, the earlier trial held in 2018 reported that of the 69 samples expected to contain MDMA, only 31 (45%) were identified as that substance using the 750 cut-off.”

Health warnings and safety information were provided to all patrons presenting at the pill testing service.

The report states that the service was very well received by patrons, with many providing feedback that they would change their behaviour – either by reconsidering, or taking less of the substances they were holding.

One additional key outcome of the pill testing service was its ability to work closely with ACT Medical Services at the festival, the report states.

The co-location of the pill testing service within the medical facility allowed for the real time exchange of information between all parties, it says.

“What needs to be stressed is that our pill testing service is a holistic and thorough process that engages patrons in discussions about their drug use; it is not just a simple process of testing, results and departure for patrons, as is often portrayed by those un-informed about our service,” the report observes.

“It is also often the first time that some patrons actually engage with a health professional about their drug use.

“The benefits of these interactions with our peers and health professionals, in terms of educating and informing patrons cannot be understated, including the potential to reduce future harm.”

The pill testing tent was also able to triage people who attended it while intoxicated.

“The close proximity of the pill testing facility to the medical tent allowed for easy and rapid exchange of findings,” the report states.

“Patrons presenting to the pill testing facility with obvious impairment were able to be triaged rapidly by the senior emergency doctors on site and escorted to the medical tent for further assessment and care, often with a presumptive analysis of what had been consumed.

“The medical tent was constantly informed of the nature of products being identified, and the different presentations that they may expect.

“In the other direction, patrons who had arrived at the medical tent unwell as a consequence of illicit drug use, were asked whether they would be amenable to having the substances in their possession analysed, and overwhelmingly, their response was positive.”

A number of people who had already had their substances analysed and found them not to contain what they expected became concerned about other patrons who might have had similar drugs, and were able to return to the tent with these friends about whom they were concerned.

The 10 recommendations are:

  1. In light of the successes of the Australian model of a health and medically supervised pill testing, conducted pro bono on 2 consecutive years by Pill Testing Australia (PTA) in Canberra, that funds be released from the ACT Government to provide actual services at future festivals in the ACT;
  2. That consideration be given to the to the implementation of pill testing services in all future ACT Government negotiations with festival promoters and other relevant stakeholders where drug-related harm might be anticipated, and that the issue of permitting appropriate signage for the service be addressed;
  3. That all other Australian State and Territory governments give further considerations to accepting Pill Testing Australia’s offer of one free pill testing pilot to assess the suitability of pill testing services at all festivals in their jurisdictions.
  4. That the ACT Government utilise the significant practical and strategic knowledge of the Pill Testing Australia consortium to introduce a pilot fixed site pill testing service within the ACT;
  5. That the Federal Government take a national leadership role in advancing and funding organisations such as Pill Testing Australia to provide pill testing services across Australia;
  6. That all levels of government work together with the Pill Testing Australia consortium and other interested parties to establish a national public early warning system, including an integrated alert system, to allow important analytical information from pill testing services to be openly shared with paramedics and other health and emergency services in festivals, so as to avoid the risk of patrons’ experiencing drug-related harm at festivals in real time;
  7. That an Australian technical advisory group of relevant agencies from multiple jurisdictions be convened to provide the best technical advice appropriate to pill testing in the Australian environment;
  8. That PTA be supported in its efforts to become part of an international network of pill testing services to ensure best practice is maintained in Australia;
  9. That consideration be given by the ANU to the establishment of a Harm Reduction Centre of Excellence, building upon the experience and expertise of staff involved in the establishment and provision of this program, and;
  10. That the ACT Government provide access to data and materials relating to illicit substances that will allow PTA to improve and validate pill testing methods in the lead-up to future events.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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  1. Michael Khoo

    Woodstock 1969… the MC ( Ed “Chip” Monck ?) announced over the PA “Do not take the brown acid, the brown acid is bad…”

    Do the pill testers have some method or obligation to spread the word when a bad batch of pills is being sold at an event?

    • Jarrod McMaugh

      The current method used at the two pilots in Canberra are “open source” testing that allows the word to get out to others.

      The best model is used in The Netherlands, where there is evidence that their warning system (country wide) prevented deaths when lethal contaminants were found in pills tested there.

      There have been instances in Australia where law enforcement have had access to the contents of drugs that were later associated with multiple overdoses, including deaths. The status quo does not ensure that people at risk are warned or educated.

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