Late last week, news broke that Groovin the Moo would allow pill testing at the Canberra leg of its festival. It was a massive breakthrough for drug reform advocates. After years of campaigning, they’d finally gotten Australia’s first pill testing trial off the ground. But there was a catch—no media would be allowed anywhere near the testing tent. The festival promoter wouldn't talk to media either, nor would the pill testers. It was a total blackout.
But there were so many questions: Where would the tent be? How long would the testing process take? And, maybe most concerning for festivalgoers, would the cops arrest you the second you stepped out of the tent?
In a total coincidence, I’d decided at the very last minute on Sunday that I really wanted to drive the three hours down to Canberra for Groovin the Moo. Look, I just love Flight Facilities. And I figured I might try and answer these questions while I was there as well.
The plan was simple: I’d find some teen inside the festival to sell me a cap, and then get it tested. But finding a cap proved harder than I expected. Sure, research shows Gen Z is taking way less drugs than millennials, and Groovin the Moo is full of Gen Zers. But I didn’t think that, after 40 minutes shuffling around the back of the dance tent, my best option would be a $60 half a Ritalin from a kid who looked like Dustin from Stranger Things.
In the end, I had to settle for some drugs I had stashed in my bumbag from a recent trip to the Syria-Lebanon border: ciproxin, an antibiotic that can be used to treat typhoid; and loperamide, a trusted treatment for both acute and chronic diarrhoea—better known as Gastro Stop.
Finding the testing tent was even more of a battle. It wasn’t on the festival map and there weren’t any signs directing you to it. Most punters I asked knew there was going to be pill testing at the festival, but had no idea where the tent was. I wandered into the first aid area looking lost. “Hey there, are you okay?” a kindly security guard asked. “Yeah, I’m just looking for the pill testing,” I replied. His face dropped, and he pointed down the side of the tent. “It’s around the corner.”
I followed the path around, behind first aid, to a much smaller tent—screened off with a black piece of fabric. “Hey, is this the pill testing?” I asked, poking my head under the screen. A woman, who I’d later find out was from the harm reduction group DanceWize, greeted me with a smile. “You’re in the right place," she said.
After that, the process was pretty simple. First thing’s first, no phones in the tent—no photos, no video. It’s actually illegal to record any medical procedure in the ACT, so there will be serious legal problems for any journalist who sneak in an undercover camera. Media had apparently been trying to get into the tent all day.
Phone locked away, the greeter then asked me to sign a waiver—basically giving the testers, and the festival, legal coverage if you chose to take the drugs anyway after they were tested. Then she handed me over to another volunteer, this one a representative from Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The pill testers, STA-SAFE, call themselves a “consortium” but basically that just means it’s all of Australia’s top harm reduction groups coming together behind this one cause. The Noffs Foundation is involved, as are veteran drug reform advocates like Gino Vumbaca and Alex Wodak, who launched Australia’s first medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross in 2001.
Inside the tent, Penny from SSDP asked me a couple of initial questions: What do you suspect the drug is? Who did you get it from (a friend, coworker, dealer etc.)? Do you normally take illicit drugs? She also gave me a wristband with a unique identifier on it. There’s no requirement that you wear it but if you do—and you end up having an adverse reaction to your drugs later—the first responders will see the wristband and know to call STA-SAFE to find out exactly what you’ve taken. This could buy paramedics precious time, which in an emergency situation, can be the difference between life and death.
Next, I met with one of the two chemists in the testing tent, who asked me to place my sample onto a set of very sensitive scales. I decided to test the loperamide, because everyone said it looked like a “really pretty cap.”
“I reckon it’s a pharmaceutical,” boomed Dr David Caldicott from behind me, the Irish emergency doctor who’s become the face of pill testing in Australia. “I don’t think that’s illicit.” He leaned in to take a closer look, “I guess we’ll find out.”
On the wall behind him were a bunch of coloured cards: white, yellow, and red. They were the interesting results that had come up during the day's testing. The yellows were mostly disappointments. Almost everyone thought they had MDMA. According to early results, 50 percent of the samples tested weren’t even active. Instead, they were filled with things like caffeine, sweet’n’low, and “fat burner.” One even had a weird brand of Polish toothpaste in it that the testing machine picked up.
The red cards were downright scary. One person thought they had speed, but the testing machine had picked up N-Ethylpentylone, a substance that’s been linked with mass overdoses and deaths in Europe. “I haven’t seen that before in Australia,” Dr Caldicott said. “But within five minutes of that result, I’d called the chief health minister of the ACT and let him know it was in the territory.”
To test your drugs, the chemist only needed to take a small scraping. Although you’re asked if you want to sacrifice the whole sample, “because that will give you a better result.”
I gave over my whole sample and it was poured onto the testing machine, a Bruker Alpha II, which has one of the most extensive drug catalogues in the world. The machine shoots a laser through your sample and breaks it into a spectrum, which is the “fingerprint” of your drug. This is then compared with every sample in its library, to try and find matches.
I had heard rumours the test would take up to half an hour to process—in reality, it was just a couple of minutes. A list of ingredients popped up on the small screen. There were a lot of different kinds of lactose. Which is frustrating because Gastro Stop is meant to be an anti-diarrhoeal, and for a lot of people in this world, your humble VICE journalist perhaps included, lactose has the opposite effect.
“It’s a really effective filler,” Dr Caldicott explained. Most samples had some form of lactose in them, some even had Carnation condensed milk in the mix.
Unfortunately, the Bruker couldn’t pick out my sample. The chemists crowded around the testing machine, quizzing me on what it was. They ran a few additional tests. The issue with pharmaceuticals, one explained, is that they are so pure it can be tough to pick up the small amount of active ingredient among all the others fillers. They said they’d feed the information back to the machine’s producer, and make sure it was added to the catalogue.
In the back of the tent, a drug counsellor named Jean sat chatting with a young couple. “I’ve worked in a lot of chill out spaces at festivals,” she laughed. Her job mostly entailed talking people through what their results meant, and how to keep safe if they decided to take any drugs that day: Look out for your friends, drink water. The usual.
What was really surprising though was how long everyone stayed to talk after their samples were tested. Some sat on beanbags with Jean, others gave feedback to Matt Noffs about how the service could be improved. Many said they wanted to see signs to the testing tent, one person suggested taking photos of pills flagged as dangerous by the Bruker and posting them up as a warning for other festivalgoers about potentially bad batches.
“All the young people were so courteous and kind,” explained Noffs, who heads up the Noffs Foundation. “For someone like me who’s worked for a really long time with young people who are in treatment, there’s a lot of trauma there and, naturally, a lot of aggression… there was no aggression [at Groovin the Moo.] There was just a lot of gratitude. It just shows me that we just conflate young people who use drugs—the government does, we as a society do.”
All up there were 128 people through the tent, and 85 samples tested. The police even sent a sample over to be analysed, which someone had dumped on the ground.
“We thought we’d see 30 people,” Noffs said. “In the first half an hour there was no one, I was thinking, Fuck… let’s just hope we see three people.” Around midday though, people started trickling in. And soon there was a line.
“I actually feel a bit stunned we did it,” Noffs added. “Where next? Well I’d say we can start thinking about NSW and Victoria.”
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