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

What do you think about pill testing at festivals and events?

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  1. Andrew

    This summer it is likely that at least one twenty-something will be seriously injured or die due to these agents. Pill testing is likely to reduce the risk somewhat but some pills will still be full of PMA, N-BOMEs and other exotic research chemicals.
    David Caldicott, Will Tregoenig, and Alex Wodak seem to be the only sane voices in this – understanding that regardless of what we try, kids will be kids and continue to take risks like this – our job is to make sure the risk is mitigated as much as possible, short of full legalization and regulation pill testing is about the best that can be done.

  2. pagophilus

    How about rather than pill testing we do a few other things: enforce the law as it stands, stigmatise drug use (and stop idolising celebrities who use drugs), and teach our kids to have some real interests in life that they’re turned off the party culture. Yes, I’m dreaming. We don’t need this “kids will be kids” attitude. It’s certainly not the world my child is being brought up in.

    • Andrew

      >>>>enforce the law as it stands

      ~50% of the population has used (illegal) drugs – so you’d need to punish approximately 11.5 million Australians. Logistically that might be tricky. Once a person has entered the criminal justice system they are far more likely to re-offend (often escalating offending) – for custodial sentences the recidivism rate is approaching 75%. As a result of enforcing these laws you’d be pushing otherwise law-abiding citizens in to a cohort that has the highest repeat criminality, in theory increasing the overall crime rate (and not just drug-related crime).

      Back to the logistics issue – 66,000 arrests for cannabis in the last year. Think of the police resources needed for applying the full weight of the law in every case….police diverted away from other work to fight a fight they are demonstrably losing…..while crime in other areas continues to rise.

      If there’s a magic bullet or idea to eliminate drug harm then I’m all for it, but as it stands the policies around illegal drugs ensure that the risk of harm to the user is about high as possible. It’s just silly.

      I strongly believe this is where retail pharmacy should be heading – a D&A role in providing advice and referral for drug users – maybe even a supply role. After all – who better than the drug experts?

      References available.

    • Ronky

      Exactly. No one-off test test is going to come remotely near to equalling the years of systematic and comprehensive testing that are required before legitimate medicines (or even foods) are allowed to be sold.
      Our governments never ask the obvious question – why are so many young people, who have every material thing they could possibly want so utterly stupid and careless for their own welfare as to buy pills which no test could possibly quantify as safe or of known provenance and composition? (And yet many of the same people who do this on Saturday night, then when they go shopping the next day carefully read all the ingredients on the low-fat yogurt to make sure that there’s nothing bad for their health!).
      Our governments and corporations need to stop selling the lie that you can have immediate and total gratification and satisfaction of every possible physical and sensual desire you may have of any kind, without any responsibility whatsoever, and Nanny Government will take all the responsibility and deal with all the consequences and make sure that you don’t get harmed in any way.

  3. pagophilus

    Pill testing – brought to you by the same harm-minimisation mindset that brought us the methadone program. And what a wonderful success that has been…..

  4. Paige

    Decriminalise it, manufacture it under strict safety and uniformity guidelines, specifiy exact correct and safe doses. Counsel on the risks, then send them off into the world. They’re going to be doing it anyway, why not make it safe?

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