6 / 9 / 2021

Pill Testing

The Results Are In

Facing stiff resistance almost nationwide, pill testing trials offered in the ACT may be finally helping pierce the many stigmas associated with the practice. Possessing a small amount of drugs is often thought of as a minor offence but it can still potentially see a sentence of up to two years imprisonment. It might seem counterintuitive then to offer to test these drugs to ensure they are safe to take.

Pill testing analyses the contents of drugs to help users avoid taking anything unknown and potentially harmful. Users can submit samples of illicit drugs anonymously for forensic analysis and are then provided with individualised feedback and counselling, where needed. This allows users to make an informed decision about whether or not to consume illicit drugs. The typical zero tolerance policy towards drugs would claim pill testing encourages or condones drug use, but the reality is far more complex. Completely eliminating drugs from society is an unrealistic aim – research shows people are likely to take illicit drugs either way. The illicit drug market is not regulated or subject to any strict production standards. This exposes those who take illicit drugs to contamination which can cause poisoning or overdose. Surely we would do better to focus on harm minimisation. Informing users and decreasing the damage caused by drugs.

Pill testing should of course for now be limited to venues where illicit drugs are known to be used, such as music festivals, to reduce harm to our community. Naturally, those who might take illicit drugs would be concerned about using testing at festivals, given heavy police presence.

What may be needed is a memorandum of understanding between Australian Police and festival goers. Clear boundaries and a mutual agreement between all parties is needed to support users coming forward for testing without fear of reprisal.

Pill testing was trialled in Canberra in 2018, at the Groovin the Moo festival. Police agreed not to target the pill testing tent at the festival. The trial saw 85 substances tested, resulting in the disposable of five of these, with two of those disposed of containing lethal substances. A zero tolerance approach to drugs, instead of the harm minimisation route taken, may have seen these drugs containing lethal substances consumed and lives lost.

Whether or not there is any suggestion pill testing condones or encourages drug use, the cost of not trying whatever we can to keep young festival goers safe surely outweighs any perceived detriment.

By Tom Taylor