Don't underestimate the importance of talking to people about pill testing, and why we need it right now. Those conversations are essential. Here are ten talking points to throw down:
Photo: checkit!, Vienna.
1. Hundreds of thousands of young Australians attend music festivals and other dance music events in Australia every year and have done so for many years. Taking party drugs like 'ecstasy' at these event is common. This continues despite saturation policing, drug detection dogs and many arrests.
2. Drug detection dog operations detect only a fraction of the drugs at music festivals and similar events, leaving many dangerous drugs in circulation. The operations do little to deter drug use and they have encouraged more dangerous behaviours, like pre-loading. Drug checking gives people a reason to bring their drugs for analysis, so that the most dangerous drugs can be identified and discarded.
2. In 2006 the NSW Ombudsman found that the drug detection dog program was ‘ineffective’ at catching drug traffickers and raised concerns about how the program placed drug users at ‘increased risk of drug-related harm.’ Since then, evidence has mounted that the drug detection program has promoted more dangerous practices like 'preloading', hiding packages of drugs in body cavities, or taking all their drugs in a panic when they see the dogs. Despite all this, the NSW Government spends more than $9 million each year on drug detection dogs.
3. Drug checking services already operate in at least 10 countries around the world including Austria, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. These have been running successfully in some countries now for 20 years.
4. There is minimal control over the purity and labelling of prohibited drugs. Misrepresentation, substitution and contamination are common. Many new psychoactive substances have come on to the market in recent years, and are now appearing at an increasing rate. Many of these are sold in forms that are far more potent than older psychoactive substances, and they often have little or no history of human use.
5. Drug checking services can identify the contents of drugs for consumers. Service staff conduct chemical analysis of samples, then interpret and provide the results. They also provide information about the risks of consuming the substances identified in the sample, and referrals into drug treatment where necessary. Markets where testing is available appear to become less dangerous over time, as increased transparency discourages suppliers from providing the more dangerous drugs.
6. Secure disposal bins are often used by consumers in existing services to dispose of particularly dangerous substances after they receive the results of the test. At a 2016 event in the UK, 25% of people who had their drugs tested decided to dispose of the drugs.
8. Drug checking kits are already legally available in Australia but these use a colourmetric reagent testing process which is inaccurate, cannot identify toxic adulterants, and is not linked to a service that provides information and education for consumers. A drug checking service using laboratory equipment is a much safer version of something that already exists.
9. Legal advice from NSW Police concluded that a drug checking service would not be illegal in NSW. The legal situation in other states is yet to be clarified.
10. The Canberra Declaration on Illicit Drugs on 3 March 2016 noted that (i) ‘some current law enforcement strategies, for example drug sniffer dogs, can lead to increased harm and should be reviewed or ceased and their resources redirected into more effective strategies’ and (ii) Drug checking presents was a potentially valuable option for reducing harm at public events and governments should enable trials to be implemented as a matter of priority’. Many people have endorsed this Declaration including representatives from the Liberal Party of Australia and the Australian Labor Party.
Dr Will Tregoning: Unharm's detailed drug checking brief.
Dr David Caldicott: What is ‘drug checking’ and why do we need it in Australia?
Professor Alison Ritter: Six reasons Australia should pilot ‘pill testing’ party drugs
Professor Julian Savulescu: We have a moral obligation to allow drug analysis at music festivals
- With Dr Alex Wodak and Dr David Caldicott