Slew of overdoses sparks renewed calls for pill testing

New research shows majority of partygoers would use the service

In early October, 16 partygoers who thought they were taking ecstasy were hospitalised after hallucinating and becoming incoherent, with 27-year-old Victorian footballer Riki Stephens dying as a result.

Toxicologists found the drug was in fact a combination of MDMA and synthetic LSD known as “N Bomb”. The case is reminiscent of pharmacist Sylvia Choi, who died in November 2015 after taking MDMA at Stereosonic Festival.

Support for pill testing continues to be high, with health professionals and drug researchers saying these deaths may have been avoided with evidence-based harm minimisation programs.

Meanwhile a drug policy researcher at the University of New South Wales has conducted a study that found the majority of partygoers would utilise pill testing services.

Dr Monica Barratt, who presented her findings at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) conference, found that of 851 Australians who used illicit psychostimulant and psychedelic substances and attended nightclubs or festivals, 94% said they would use drug-checking services at clubs and festivals.

In addition, 85% said they would use a fixed-site service at a central location, while 53% would use a laboratory that accepted samples by mail.

Most said they would use the service if they received direct rather than public feedback on the test results.

However, the possibility of arrest would deter almost all of those surveyed from using a service.

“This study shows that voluntary user-submitted drug testing is feasible in Australia under conditions of direct feedback and legal amnesty,” says Dr Barrett.

“Testing drugs and providing the results back to both users and other stakeholders can be a game changer. With this information in hand, police, health and welfare agencies that deal with the fall-out from drugs are better equipped to do their jobs and drug users can avoid ingesting unknown, unexpected and potentially more dangerous substances,” she says.

“However there needs to be an understanding that a drug-checking service is not a panacea that will prevent all drug-related overdoses or deaths.

“The provision of test results opens up conversations with people about their drug use, and this should occur as part of a suite of public safety interventions, like festival outreach, safe spaces, free water, environmental modifications, and ready access to first aid.”

Concern for overdose deaths has reached a peak, health professionals warn, as new synthetic drugs are created and festival season approaches.

Emergency room physician Dr David Caldicott, who has also been an advocate of pill testing and other harm minimisation approaches, told ABC’s Hack that he was not surprised by the Gold Coast overdose story and expects to see it happen again over the next few months.

“In the last 12 months we’ve been tracking the overdoses we’ve been seeing in Europe and North America – we’re predicting this will be the summer of multiple unknown overdoses,” he says.

However not all health professionals agree. Pharmacy and public health researchers from the University of Newcastle have written an editorial published in the Internal Medicine Journal, in which they argue that pill testing provides false reassurance due to the potential for false negative results.

“It is evident that the consumer considering taking an illicit drug may have a falssense of security, particularly if their decision to take the drug is based only on information provided by quantitativand qualitative on-site pill testing. The failure to detecan agent that could be life-threatening is of great concern,” they write.

“Although the harm reduction argument is noted, equally, the many unknown and potentially unidentiable factors that could cause mortality are noted. On-sittesting will thus not solve this probleand could lead to other problems of an unpredictable and tragic nature.”

Image by @patricksavalle

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