Australia lacks political willpower to adopt pill testing

Australian governments shy way from pill-testing, despite harm-reduction, being part of the three pillars of National Drug Safety. Evidence shows that through increased education of pill-testing to inaccessible drug users, it can become a useful tool for preventing direct and indirect harm reduction, according to the authors of the Medical Journal of Australia.

At a recent music festival, Dr. Jody Morgan and Professor Alison Jones, the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute and from the University of Wollongong, surveyed to determine how drugs are used in comparison to the overall younger generations drug use. According to the survey, 73.4 percent of people at the festival used drugs, compared to 28.2 percent of the average youth population. Among the list of drugs, MDMA, or ecstasy, was reported to be used as high as 59.8 percent, compared to the overall use of 7 percent.

“Concerningly, the 2019 Global Drug Survey identified Australia as the country with the highest number of MDMA pills consumed on a single occasion (average, 2.0 pills v global average, 1.0 pills),” Morgan and Jones commented. “Supporting this, a survey of Australian music festival attendees found that almost half (48 percent) of 777 respondents taking ecstasy pills reported simultaneous consumption of two ecstasy pills.

“Evidence of the dangers associated with this behavior can be seen in the global statistics, with 2.3 percent of Australian users seeking medical attention following MDMA use compared with a global average of 1.0 percent,” said Jones and Morgan.

Because there’s no “gold standard,” the Australian government doesn’t have a system in place for pill-testing, according to Jones and Morgan. Different techniques, accuracies, qualitative and quantitative results, and how results are presented are all variables in pill-testing that factor into what makes an official policy.

Pill-checking models have two-models for classification:

Private Posting – Results of pill-testing are provided directly to the patron who submitted the pill; Face-to-face interaction alongside a health care provider is practiced, while the public becomes informed about the more severe drugs in circulation. The Loop has used this method in the United Kingdom, and trials by Groovin the Moo in the Australian Capital Territory during both 2018 and 2019.

Public Posting – Results of pill-tested are posted on the internet, each pill given rankings determining safety hazards, such as “good/bad” or “green/orange/red.” This method was used by DanceSafe in the United States, and by the Drugs Information and Monitoring System in Netherlands.

“Common arguments against pill-testing include: the testing technique is not accurate enough to identify all components; the techniques available onsite cannot provide a quantitative analysis required to prevent overdose; complaints from policymakers about lack of proven efficacy of harm reduction from pill-testing; an overall feeling that pill-testing condones drug use; and the fear that dealers will use pill-testing results to promote their brand,” Morgan and Jones said.

To both Jones and Morgan, all of the arguments can be addressed through using pill-testing as a single component rather than a larger harm reduction strategy.

“In any best practice system, there will never be a circumstance where health care providers tell patrons that their drug is safe to take,” said Jones and Morgan. “In fact, as Dr. David Caldicott, who was involved in Australia’s pill-testing trials in 2018 and 2019, has explained, the exact opposite is true, with all patrons informed at every step of the process that no amount of illicit drug consumption is safe.”

According to both Jones and Morgan, despite harm reduction being a focus for the Australian government, pill-testing isn’t being considered.