When it comes to the pill-testing debate in Australia, there’s one word we keep using to make our argument. But it’s a blatant lie.
When it comes to the pill-testing debate in Australia, there’s one word we keep using to make our argument. But it’s a blatant lie.

One-word lie we keep telling about drugs

OPINION

When it comes to pill testing in Australia, opponents keep sharing a four-letter lie: That we're wrongfully teaching young people drug use is "safe".

But research, drug experts and case studies from around the world show this a blatant misrepresentation of how the program actually works.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has again rejected calls for pill testing after a teenage girl died from a suspected drug overdose at a Sydney music festival.

Alex Ross-King, 19, was one of 11 people rushed to hospital from the FOMO music festival in Parramatta this weekend.

Police are still waiting on the toxicology results, but it's believed the teenager ingested MDMA at the festival.

It marks the fifth death of its kind in NSW in just four months, prompting a national debate about the effectiveness of pill-testing - a harm minimisation initiative where people can get their drugs tested and ask questions about the effects of different substances.

 

Alex Ross-King was rushed to hospital from the FOMO music festival in Parramatta this weekend, after a suspected drug overdose.
Alex Ross-King was rushed to hospital from the FOMO music festival in Parramatta this weekend, after a suspected drug overdose.

The NSW Premier's response to the spate of deaths has been to repeatedly implore young people not to take drugs.

She opposes the introduction of pill-testing, which has been successfully trialled around the world, and insists it would not prevent tragic cases like Ms Ross-King's.

This morning, Ms Berejiklian told Sunrise host David Koch: "Pill-testing doesn't deal with overdoses. Pill-testing doesn't say to one person, 'This is gonna kill you', whereas to someone else it might be safe."

In an opinion piece earlier this month, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro made a similar statement: "Young people have always experimented, but how many others might be tempted to dabble in drugs if NSW Labor is telling them their pill is 'safe'?"

"Safe". Pill-testing opponents repeatedly use this four-letter word to justify their stance, saying it would be unethical to tell young people it's "safe" to consume drugs simply because a testing kit has determined the substance is pure.

But it's simply untrue. Harm reduction workers will never, ever tell a person it is "safe" to take drugs, regardless of the test results, according to drug experts.

According to Edith Cowan University addiction expert Stephen Bright, pill-testing services are as much about "opportunistic intervention" and face-to-face education as they are about testing chemicals.

"One of the biggest misconceptions around pill-testing is that it will portray taking drugs as safe," Dr Bright told news.com.au. "Harm reduction workers always say there is no safe level of drug consumption. It's an opportunity to educate people on drugs - people who may not have seen such education in their schools, for example."

He said the brief intervention component was crucial, and that there were several cases in which people who were thinking about taking ecstasy for the first time - and whose pills yielded a pure result - actually changed their mind after speaking with an on-site expert.

"We know there's concern that pill-testing sites will endorse drug use, but it actually does the absolute opposite," said Dr Bright. "Young people know using drugs is risky. We have research that demonstrates this. We also have research that shows young people are trying to find out what's in their pills.

"When you walk into a festival and you see there's a pill-testing service with information about different kinds of drugs on the market, it makes the risk real - it turns the perception of risk into real risk."

 

Premier Gladys Berejiklian argues pill-testing could convince young people drugs are “safe”. But research shows it has the opposite effect.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian argues pill-testing could convince young people drugs are “safe”. But research shows it has the opposite effect.

Simply telling young people not to take drugs, as is Ms Berejiklian's strategy, does not work. The fact that these tragedies continue to occur proves this.

Studies have found Australians are among the world's leading consumers of ecstasy, with a 2016 AIHW report finding that 2.1 million - or 10.9 per cent - of Australians aged 14 and over have used the drug at least once.

Ms Berejiklian argued pill-testing doesn't help when it comes to overdosing on pure MDMA, and that it gives young people a "false sense of security" if their capsule or tablet is found to be free of other substances.

But again, experts dispute this. According to Dr Bright, pill testing can also determine the purity of drugs, which can help young people make more informed decisions and prevent festival deaths.

At Canberra's Groovin' The Moo festival last April, for example, where pill-testing was first trialled in Australia, harm reduction workers identified several pills and capsules with potent levels of MDMA.

"Through that, if people were still going to take the drugs, we could tell them to take only half the amount a time, or not to double-drop (take two pills at once)," said Dr Bright. "This can reduce the potential for harm and death by broadcasting it through channels at the festival."

In some cases, the trial found lethal substances which were disposed of immediately.

David Caldicott, an emergency doctor who led the Canberra trial, said users were never assured it's okay to take illicit substances.

"When a person first enters the pill testing area, they are met by a 'harm reduction worker'. This person explains the pill testing process and advises the patron that there is no safe level of drug consumption," Mr Caldicott told the ABC.

"You will not be told at any stage that your drug is safe."

Dr Bright said a truly successful approach to pill-testing requires a collaborative effort from everybody involved - the festival organisers, the state government, police, event co-ordinators and harm reduction services.

"To have pill-testing out on its own is not the best idea - it needs to be linked to paramedical services," he said.

Achieving this could most effectively minimise the risk of tragedies like that of Ms Ross-King.

Dr Bright also set up a covert pill-testing station at a Victorian music festival in 2017. He said most people disposed of their drugs after tests determined they were potentially harmful.

"We also identified some other drugs like 2CE and 2CP," he said. "And people responded saying they were really grateful to have that information, saying they'd only take half.

"Success isn't solely in discarding the drugs. It's also having people understand what they might be in for."

Several studies have also shown that pill testing can drastically reduce harm. A US-Australian study published in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal last month found that 54 per cent of ecstasy users would be less likely to use ecstasy again if they learnt it contained bath salts or methamphetamine.

Likewise Fiona Measham, who led the UK's first pill-testing trial, told the public broadcaster there was a 95 per cent reduction in hospital admissions the year they were testing on site.

At the same time, several countries around the world - Germany, Spain, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austria - have reported positive outcomes from adopting pill testing.

Judging by the evidence, lives could be spared if Australia followed suit.

 

@gavindfernando | gavin.fernando@news.com.au


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