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Lost (Opportunity in) Paradise

Nic Savage

“Australia is famous for having impure MDMA… People don’t realise if you take pills wrong, you can die.”

Photo: Nic Savage

In September of last year, the ACT Government approved the inclusion of a free pill-testing trial at the Spilt Milk festival in Canberra. However, three weeks later, the festival organisers pulled out of the trial, less than six weeks before the event took place.

As the Australian music festival season draws to a close, debates over the role of pill testing have escalated. Support for the inclusion of free drug-testing kits at events in Canberra – such as Spilt Milk and Groovin the Moo – for a while appeared to overpower political opposition. However recently, the accuracy of these products have been questioned.

Dr Monica Barratt, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW in Sydney is a social scientist who specialises on drug policy. Her main concern with pill-testing kits is the lack of information they convey to the user. She cautions that the NBOMe drug is appearing more frequently in Australian-made elicit drugs and cannot be detected by some cheaper kits.

“[Pill-testing kits] don’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know to determine whether or not this is a drug you should reject. It’s not that they’re useless; if you want to detect the presence or absence of an MDMA-like substance, you can do that very well with a testing kit,” Barratt said.

“However, there are some questions about the accuracy. They’re dangerous because if they’re just used in a simple fashion, that might potentially give a false reading. They might miss the most important aspect of what’s in that substance.”

Photo: Nic Savage

Dr Barratt suggests free pill testing in Australia is unlikely to occur in the next few years because very few are willing to fund the initiative due to expense and political resistance.

“There is technology out there that can identify multiple substances accurately, and even go further to identity purity, but that takes funding. It takes expertise, and it also takes political will… There are forces in play that really don’t want this to happen.”

Barratt insinuates that the scrapping of pill testing at Spilt Milk last year was due to fear of loss of permit. Without support from law enforcement, the festival risked being canned by the organisers.

“Victoria and the ACT are a bit more progressive, and those states are more likely to potentially move forward with a trial… If law enforcement is on board, and they’re pushing for it, then the biggest obstacle to the project is gone.”

Trent, who declined to share his full name, is one of the owners of EZ Test, an Australian company that sells pill-testing kits from Amsterdam. EZ Test was founded with the aim of providing the necessary equipment for users to check the purity of pills.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about saving some lives,” said Trent. “We’re providing a product that will help people avoid some bad substances. Ultimately it’s harm reduction. They’re going to take these things anyway.”

Due to the increase of drug takers since the nineties, Trent believes attitudes towards party drugs need to change as they have become more accepted by the Australian youth.

“In reality, a lot more people die form tobacco and codeine than they do from party drugs. You’d probably get a lot more destruction from someone on alcohol than you would from someone on ecstasy.”

However, Trent concedes that whilst the testing kits EZ Test provide will detect if a particular drug is in a pill, proper toxicology equipment is needed to have a complete understanding of the contents.

Casey Lynn, the President of the Macquarie University Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), considers the safety of drug users a priority, and believes that education about available resources is an immediate necessity to achieving this.

“Regardless of the legality… we should be making the best attempt at keeping people safe. Any deaths that have occurred are completely avoidable,” said Lynn.

“A lot of people in my life would like to have [pill-testing kits] easily accessible, and there’s a lot of conversation about how to actually access them… Nobody knows where to get them; it’s not being readily advertised.”

Lynn recalled situations where she was given a substance, and ultimately experienced side-effects that were not expected. The subsequent trip was not one she anticipated, and described the ordeal as terrifying.

“I was not expecting a psychedelic experience, and that’s not really what was on the cards. That could be avoided with a testing kit.”

Photo: Catherine Londos

Robert Meek, a student at the University of Technology Sydney, also believes drug users need to be more aware of the negative consequences when overtaking or not testing elicit drugs.

“The first step is getting people to be aware that drugs are everywhere already. They don’t just exist in alleys; they’re in nightclubs, in festivals, in parks,” said Meek.

“There needs to be change in the social perception of what drugs are. The reality is, at every musical festival, 80-90% of people are taking MDMA.”

The Australian Government Department of Health reported that in 2016, approximately 3.1 million Australians were using an illicit drug for recreational purposes. The Australia Bureau of Statistics also found that of the 1,808 drug-induced deaths in 2016, 71% were accidental, and therefore preventable.

Meek asserts that the decriminalisation of drug taking would reduce the number of lives lost from overdoses. This has already been seen in England and some Scandinavian nations, where users are being monitored and the drugs have been administered by professionals in safe environments.

“The benefits of making sure the pills are tested outweigh the number of people that would then take pills without testing. It’s not in the public conversation, and that’s what needs to happen.”