Get the facts on drug checking – does it make drug use safer?

Drug checking FAQs

Miki Mclay

Experts and workers across public health, criminal justice and the electronic music industries have lent their support to proposals for a drug-checking service in Australia, but significant resistance from major political parties of both persuasions has impeded progress. The debate has been an emotive and heated one. To help you find your way through the madness, here’s a no-bullshit FAQ on the basics of drug-checking.

What is drug checking and is it the same as ‘pill testing’?

Drug-checking services find out what’s really in illegal drugs, and tell people about it. The checking involves small-scale analysis to determine the content and purity of drug samples that are brought to the service by members of the public. This information is returned to the person who brought the sample, as well as being recorded anonymously for monitoring purposes. Drug checking is a more inclusive term for what is also known as ‘pill testing’ – drug checking is preferred as there has been a distinct increase in recent years in the consumption of drugs not in the typical pressed-pill format.

So, why bother checking drugs?

Because the reality is that regardless of the efforts of law enforcement there continues to be a significant market for illegal drugs in Australia. The unregulated nature of this market means anything goes when it comes to production and distribution. The primary risks associated with use of party drugs are related to their illegality. People manufacturing drugs such as ecstasy pills will sometimes cut pills with other substances, or substitute other more dangerous drugs entirely. High potency forms of MDMA and other illicit drugs are becoming increasingly prevalent in Australia, and present risk to users in terms of unknowingly taking unsafe doses. People are often unaware of the health risks (such as dehydration and overheating) involved in consuming MDMA and other illicit drugs. Drug-checking provides us with a unique opportunity to respond to each of these risks effectively.

Has drug checking been trialled elsewhere?

Yes! Drug checking operates in over twenty different countries around the world. The prime example would be the Netherlands, where drug checking is actually part of the government’s Drug Information Monitoring System program. An arrangement with the Ministry of Justice and prosecutors ensures users of the service are not arrested. The Dutch drug-checking services are run out of various laboratory/office locations across the country. Results from analyses are retained by researchers for the monitoring of trends in the illicit drug market, and used to contribute to scientific research, policy-making, policing and emergency health care. Austria and Portugal are two other examples of states where a drug checking service are available at music festivals and other party settings. Similarly, they combine drug checking with health-based information and referrals where needed.

How does drug checking work?

There are a couple of options in terms of how to test. The cheapest would be colourmetric testing – chemical reagents are used to test small amounts scraped from a pill or a bag to determine a sample’s primary contents. There are weaknesses with this method: colourmetric testing is only able to indicate contents (and not strength or quantity), and the accuracy with which it detects multiple compounds is limited. Test kits of this nature are available to purchase online for personal use, and encouragingly it appears that users of party drugs already utilise these as part of their efforts to stay safe.

More in-depth testing is available through laboratory-based techniques such as chromatography and spectrometry. A combination of these have been utilized in the countries mentioned above – they are the far preferred method as they are able to reliably report both on what is in the sample, and how much.

In terms of how it might work at a music festival, users generally submit a sample for testing, participate in a brief health education intervention and receive the option for referral to further interventions. They will receive testing results and relevant information based on the results. Results from analysis could potentially be compiled similarly to the Trans-European Drug Information project and European Early Warning System on an anonymous basis to assist in research, policy setting, policing and emergency health care.

Does drug checking promote drug use?

Evidence canvassed from the above examples would suggest that no, people don’t end up consuming more illicit substances as a result of a drug checking service.  Drug checking services are actually a unique opportunity to effectively encourage people who use illicit drugs to modify their behaviours in ways that reduce risks of harm to their health.

Here is a hypothetical based on experience: you have ten people rock up to a music festival with what they assume to be ecstasy. On average only two or three of those ten samples will actually contain uncontaminated MDMA. 

Without a drug-checking intervention, all ten people will likely consume the drugs they’ve taken with them, without really knowing the contents. Drug dog operations tend to only find a minuscule proportion of drugs being carried into an event, so in this hypothetical we will assume none will be picked up on the way in. 

If all ten were able to use a drug-checking service some would discover that what they have isn’t what they thought it was, or is too strongly dosed. Some would throw out what they have, others would moderate their consumption in line with the advice they received. Others who are undeterred will engage in drug-taking with a more informed approach to the risks involved (for example, by ensuring they stay adequately hydrated over the course of the event to reduce the risk of overheating). This isn’t conjecture – it is consistent with the experiences of international drug-checking experiences.

Would drug checking imply that taking illicit drugs is safe?

No. Every drug checking service out there operates on a harm reduction basis. Even with precise testing, service staff  never tell users of the service that what they are taking is ‘safe.’ This is important because with all drugs, the level of risk depends a lot on the characteristics of the person and the environment. Services provide information on contents, the risks involved, and how to reduce them.

Wouldn’t drug checking fly in the face of the government’s current illicit drug strategy?

No. A drug checking service is another example of harm-reduction practices that are already in action, like Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, or the needle and syringe exchanges across the country.

We would need to ensure that those who used the service were not subject to criminal sanctions – the service would be useless if there was a risk that users would be arrested by police. A good workaround would could be to follow the example of the needle and syringe program in NSW, for which police are directed to be mindful not to conduct unwarranted patrols near services.

There are also legal implications for the people operating the service, in relation to criminal liability for possession of illicit drugs in the context of their role, and potential civil liability in relation to the advice provided. Other countries with similar legislative frameworks have dealt with these issues in considered and reasonable ways, balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders. This indicates that a testing program could be accommodated here as well.

Image Credit:
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash