On Tuesday, Australia’s first fixed-site drug testing facility opened its doors in Canberra. During opening hours, two days a week, casual and routine drug users of all walks are encouraged to get their gear tested for threats.
It’s an inflection point, advocates say, that has been two decades in the making.
“I couldn’t sleep very well last night,” Dr David Caldicott, an emergency department doctor who heads up the medical team at Pill Testing Australia, told VICE. “I’m a fucking hardcore emergency guy, you know. I’ll stick things in your chest—should you need them. I’m as hard as you get.
“But I teared up walking in there.”
The drug testing site will run as a pilot program over the next six months, before a government evaluation decides whether it has legs as a permanent service. It will be operated by the Australian Capital Territory government in conjunction with Harm Reduction Australia, Pill Testing Australia, the Australian National University and local health provider, Directions.
The program was a fixture of the territory government’s 2021 budget handed down in October last year, and adds to a flurry of recent harm reduction efforts mounted by the ACT government over the last few months.
“We now recognise the reality that people are going to take drugs. And so we as a community have a responsibility to reduce harm.”
Most recent among them were new “personal possession” laws, which will see those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs escape criminal charges.
Like the personal possession legislation, the ACT’s new pill testing pilot program didn’t come without its challenges. ACT health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, told VICE that there were a number of political takeaways that came from getting the program over the line in the face of tough opposition.
Her advice to other jurisdictions considering a similar program was simple: work closely with peer support groups, health experts, and Pill Testing Australia, and “they will realise” the offering is a health service like any other.
Stephen-Smith told VICE that working closely with the territory’s police was also crucial to the program’s launch, which thanks to a memorandum of understanding rules out the potential for users to be arrested in possession of drugs they hope to get tested at the facility, either on approach to the front door or on their way out of the building.
After a participant enters the building, they’re shown upstairs, where they are asked to sign a waiver before their drugs are tested. Of the two tests available on-site, one will run analysis of the two major components of whatever compound is tested, while a second, more granular test is available to offer insight into potency levels, and up to ten other chemicals found in the tested compound.
Stephen-Smith said one misconception a lot of people have is that by greenlighting drug testing programs like this the government is approving of drug use and telling the territory’s residents that a drug might be safe. It would never be the case, she said.
“We don't support or encourage or promote drug-taking—absolutely the opposite. But we now recognise the reality that people are going to take drugs. And so we as a community have a responsibility to reduce harm,” she said.
Once the test results are in, an on-site nurse sits the visitor down and explains how some components of the drug might react with others, and what possible health outcomes could be expected after taking the drug. Never, both the minister and the program’s health staff told VICE, would a visitor of the program be told that what they’ve had tested is “safe”.
In a real-world setting, these tests could be crucial in preventing overdose-related deaths by spotting mixed-cut cocaine and MDMA, which in some states have been known to contain Fentanyl, a powerful opioid that poses serious risks of fatal overdose and has been a catalyst for carnage among fatality rates in the United States.
“This is accessible to any person in the ACT who is intending on consuming a substance, particularly an illicit substance. So it's completely free and confidential, and doesn't discriminate about whether they use drugs at festivals, whether they use drugs privately in their own home, whether they go to nightclubs or other venues.”
For Chris Gough, a peer support worker and executive director at Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA), it was crucial that the program’s design centred around the needs of a broad spectrum of drug users across the territory. He was pleased with the result.
Part of that, he told VICE, was ensuring that the opening times—during the day, on Thursdays, and on Friday nights—catered to as broad a set of drug consumers as possible.
“We’ve split the shifts to try and capture the person who is currently using the needle and syringe program (NSP), to make sure they have access. They are probably more likely to be dependent on methamphetamine or heroin, you know, coming into the NSP regularly, and may want to check their gear,” he said.
“Maybe they’ve got it from a different source, and they’re not sure of the strength.”
One crucial element of the service’s offering, he said, was to ensure that visitors to the NSP felt taken care of, while other more casual users who might want to get their pills tested before heading to the club on a Friday night have the same opportunity.
Each of the advocacy groups involved in the government’s consultation period on the program told VICE that accessibility was a key priority in designing the pilot’s scope, which was borne of an evaluation of a pill testing trial conducted by the ACT government at Groovin’ the Moo, back in 2019.
In a review of the festival-based trial, experts at ANU found that it offered people planning to do drugs with good health information and impacted their behaviours and attitudes in a way that was “likely to reduce harm”. The trial also prevented the consumption of seven toxic pills containing N-Ethylpentylone, a drug associated with mass casualty events in the US and New Zealand.
This new pilot gives access to an ever greater cross section of the ACT population. Bronwyn Hendry, CEO of Directions Health Services—the local service provider operating the new drug testing pilot—told VICE the program’s launch is a watershed moment for drug-testing accessibility.
“This is accessible to any person in the ACT who is intending on consuming a substance, particularly an illicit substance. So it's completely free and confidential, and doesn't discriminate about whether they use drugs at festivals, whether they use drugs privately in their own home, whether they go to nightclubs or other venues,” Hendry said.
“It's open to everyone who's at risk of harm associated with illicit drug use. And I think that was a really important philosophy from our perspective as directions and also from the government's perspective, and not discriminating against different groups of people who use drugs,” she said.
Looking forward, Hendry isn’t alone in hoping the pilot sparks a wave of others like it, spurred by an endorsement from the federal health minister, Mark Butler.
As it stands, though, Commonwealth endorsement could still be a way off. The last federal position taken on the issue of pill testing was one of heavy opposition back in 2019, by the former Coalition government.
Stephen-Smith said she hasn’t yet had extensive talks about the pilot with her federal counterpart, but is more focused on showcasing the scheme’s findings in a presentation to other state and territory health ministers who, at the end of the day, have the final say anyway.
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