Pill Testing: Frequently asked questions

January 31, 2019 The Noffs Team Comments

The renewed push for pill testing has been gathering momentum in recent months. Inevitably, those who are opposed to it have been vocal about why they consider it either ineffective, or just plain bad for the community. Understandably, this has created a lot of confusion about what exactly pill testing is, how it operates, and what it can achieve. It is important to address the questions people may have and, in the process, dispel the misconceptions. We aim to do so here.


Does pill testing encourage drug use?

Pill testing is a medical intervention that, at its most fundamental level, aims to reduce the harms from drugs. Pill testing allows an individual to determine the content and purity of their drug, whilst acknowledging that drugs will affect people differently. With this in mind, no visitor to a pill testing service is ever told that there is a safe way to consume any illicit substance.


Isn't MDMA causing the fatal overdoses, rather than adulterants?

Some people who are opposed to pill testing say it is ‘ecstasy’ (usually meaning MDMA) that is causing deadly overdoses, rather than adulterants. Actually, they’re not wrong - this can be the case. However, using this to justify an argument against pill testing shows a lack of understanding about what it is.

To reiterate, pill testing is a medical intervention. The testing is overseen by a doctor. Once the drug is identified, the doctor explains the risks associated with that drug. If the individual still intends to use the drug, the doctor advises of ways to reduce the level of risk. Having a doctor on hand to provide this kind of advice beats having nothing - and only pill testing can provide this kind of information, in this way.


I’ve heard that pill testing technology is ineffective?

This is a persisting misconception. In reality, the equipment involved is highly sophisticated, and has been used by established, professional pill testing services in other countries for years [1]. The Fourier Transform infrared spectrometer (FTIR), a machine commonly used in testing - including last year’s trial in the ACT - is so advanced it can determine everything from active ingredients to filler, right down to the brand of paint that has been used to dye a substance [2].


Does pill testing save lives?

Yes.

By identifying and reporting on drugs containing lethal chemicals, pill testing services are able to warn people against consuming them, thus avoiding adverse, potentially deadly side effects.

One real-life example of this was observed in related incidents in the Netherlands and the UK. In 2008, the Netherlands’ pill testing service - a fully-funded government organisation that is part of official Dutch public health policy - found a lethal batch of pills containing the chemical PMA, known to be highly toxic [3]. This discovery triggered a national mass media campaign involving radio and television broadcasts, social media posts, and alerts at live music events. There were no deaths related to these pills [4].

In the UK, on the other hand, no such service was available at the time, and four people died after consuming pills from this batch [5].

A pill testing service with the right resources and support can provide timely warnings about dangerous drugs.

In Zurich, the service SaferParty is funded by the City’s social department [6], and since it started operating, none of its staff can recall any ecstasy-related deaths [7].


Does pill testing reduce drug use?

Yes.

A number of studies have indicated that people are more likely to discard a drug if it is found to be potentially harmful.

Data collected in 2015 at festivals in Canada found that, of those accessing pill testing services, the percentage who decided against using their drug increased to nearly a third if that drug was found to contain lethal chemicals [8].

This has been echoed elsewhere: In a survey by Check It, Austria’s largest testing service, researchers found that two-thirds of people discarded their drugs if test results showed they contained harmful adulterants [9]. Similarly, UK service The Loop and North American service DanceSafe have reported a 25-100% discard rate of drugs if the test results were unexpected [10]. Most recently, a 2018 joint US-Australian study surveyed electronic dance music events in New York City [11] and found that individuals would be less likely to use ecstasy if testing found it contained ‘bath salts’ or methamphetamine (54.8% and 54.3% respectively).


Does pill testing reduce hospitalisations?

Yes.

In 2016, pill testing was introduced at a festival in the UK, during a time when drug-related incidents at festivals were at their highest on record [12]. The previous year, the same festival saw 19 drug-related hospitalisations. The year it hosted a pill testing service, there was just one - a total reduction of 95% [13].


Does pill testing enable better health access?

Yes.

Young people are more likely to be receptive to health information if it’s delivered by someone they can consider a peer, as opposed to an authority figure such as the government or a parent. In this way, pill testing offers an opportunity to engage a demographic of recreational drug users that may not otherwise seek out this type of information.

Evidence from services overseas backs this up. Research conducted by Check it found 58% of people using pill testing services would not otherwise seek harm reduction information. Overall, 75% indicated they would be more likely to access health information if a pill testing service was included [14]. Similar reports in Spain and the UK found a significant percentage of people accessing health information at pill testing services had never sought out this information before [15].


Summary - pill testing works

Hopefully, this has answered some of the common questions about pill testing. The evidence really does speak for itself, proving that pill testing makes an important contribution not only to harm reduction policy, but to the health and safety of the community.

It is a proven success overseas, and there is no reason to believe it cannot have the same positive impact here in Australia.

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References

[1] NDARC. 2017. Global review of drug checking services operating in 2017. (Retrieved from here)
[2] Butler, J. "Meet The Machine That Gives You The DNA Of A Pill Right Down To The Type Of Paint". tendaily. 22 January 2019. (Retrieved from here)
[3] Alcohol and Drug Foundation. 29 November 2018. What are PMA and PMMA? (Retrieved from here)
[4] Brunt, T. 2017. Drug checking as a harm reduction tool for recreational drug users: opportunities and challenges. (Retrieved from here)
[5] Brunt, T. 2017. Drug checking as a harm reduction tool for recreational drug users: opportunities and challenges. (Retrieved from here)
[6] saferparty.ch (www.saferparty.ch/ueber-uns.html)
[7] Stevens, O. 2017. Recreational MDMA testing - a European perspective (Retrieved from here)
[8] Sage, C. Michelow, W. Drug Checking At Music Festivals: A How-To Guide (Retrieved from here)
[9] Ritter, A. "Six reasons Australia should pilot 'pill testing' party drugs". The Conversation. 12 November 2014. (Retrieved from here)
[10] Stevens, O. 2017. Recreational MDMA testing - a European perspective (Retrieved from here)
[11] Palamar, J. Barratt, M. 2018. Prevalence of reagent test-kit use and perceptions of purity among ecstasy users in an electronic dance music scene in New York City. Drug and Alcohol Review (Retrieved from here
[12] Measham, F. 2018. Drug safety testing, disposals and dealing in an English field: Exploring the operational and behavioural outcomes of the UK's first onsite 'drug checking' service. International Journal of Drug Policy. (Retrieved from here
[13] Measham, F. 2018. Drug safety testing, disposals and dealing in an English field: Exploring the operational and behavioural outcomes of the UK's first onsite 'drug checking' service. International Journal of Drug Policy. (Retrieved from here)
[14] Benschop et al. 2002. Pill Testing, Ecstasy & Prevention: A Scientific Evaluation of Three European Cities. (Retrieved from here)
[15] Giné et al. 2017. The utility of drug checking services as monitoring tools and more: A response to Pirona et al. International Journal of Drug Policy. (Retrieved from here)

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