Music by VICE

We Spoke with Some Experts About the Future of Pill Testing In Australia

The NSW government has declared it illegal, while others have praised the virtues of the prospect.

by Liam Apter
Mar 11 2016, 3:08pm

Photo credit: Dan Roxanne

"There have been about a hundred deaths, estimated by the National Drug and Alcohol Centre, at music events over the last decade and the number young people hospitalised from ecstasy-related drugs is increasing rapidly," exclaims Dr. Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, who is leading the charge with Dr. David Caldicott for a pill-testing trial in NSW. "And you look what Europe is doing in regards to pill-testing and they seem to be reducing the number of deaths and hospitalisation." In between attending a parliamentary inquiry and picking up his grandchildren for the day Dr. Wodak is talking to me about pill-testing or as it is more formally known drug checking services. The proposal follows two drug-related deaths at Stereosonic last year, and Premier Mike Baird's decision to act tough on festivals exclaiming, "There's a pretty simple way that you know you're going to be safe—don't take the pills."

Dr. Wodak's proposal on drug checking would see a pilot run at one of Australia's major festivals, with a study attached to examine the impact. For it to run it needs to raise $100,000, which Dr. Wodak hopes can come from crowd-funding. The benefits of drug checking are many fold, argues Dr. Wodak, "You can identify what the drug is, its dosage and identify toxic elements that can result in death." This is done using chromatography, utilised in Europe, an efficient method of analysing a substance every 20-30 minutes. In in the long-term Dr. Wodak believes, "The other benefit is pill-testing creates a safer market."

Read: We Walked Around a Bush Doof and Tested People's Drugs

Will Tregoning, the founder of Unharm, an organisation aimed at changing Australia's prohibitionist drug policy, is a key player backing the drug checking trial. Mr. Tregoning believes it would improve the quality of drugs. "Publicising information to other consumers it makes it more difficult for drug dealers to sell unknown...substances." Dr. Wodak adds the drug checking service allows for the safe disposal of drugs, counselling on harm reduction and can reach people usually missed by government announcements. "And all of this has been achieved in Europe without significant unintended negative consequences," states Dr. Wodak who is a specialist at creating health policies without 'significant unintended negative consequences'.

In 1986 there were 3000-4000 gay men in the inner city of Sydney with HIV according to Dr. Wodak. "We knew some of those gay men would inject drugs and share syringes...A potential was for Australia to experience what was called a 'generalised epidemic' of HIV." Dr. Wodak and a number of colleagues decided to petition the NSW Health department, "I started writing submission after submission for a needle and syringe program but my submissions were ignored or declined." At this point Dr. Wodak and his colleagues decided to challenge the law, "On the 12th November 1986 we introduced the needle and syringe program and now Australia distributes 35 million needle and syringes a year. A 2009 study found for every dollar spent on the needle and syringe program four dollars was saved." This policy shift helped limit the spread of HIV and it was achieved because Dr. Wodak and his colleagues resorted to civil disobedience.

We have an obligation to tell young people about the effects of a particular drug. We have a duty of care to educate young people about 'safer' use and harm minimisation.

This method may be needed again as both Premier Baird and Deputy Premier Troy Grant have opposed a pilot drug checking program. In an interview with 2UE, Deputy Premier Grant stated, "[Drug checking is a] very dangerous regime that the NSW government fundamentally rejects." He argued if the testing fails and someone dies then service can be sued for manslaughter. Grant also challenged the logistics of testing a large number of drugs in a given night before admitting, "I don't know a lot about the engineering of the pill testing, or how it's made up or the science behind it exactly."

But according to Mr. Tregoning in a soon to be released paper shared with the Premier's office in mid–February, drug checking services are legal. Citing a 2001 statement from the the Courts and Legal Services of the NSW Police Service to the Commonwealth Department of Health, "A tester in the context of a testing station would not be committing an offence of possession because the charge requires that the person has knowledge of the substance being an illicit drug and has physical control over the substance. A tester would not know what the substance was until after the test was performed and it is likely that holding the drug for long enough to perform a test does not constitute control." The key aspect Mr. Tregoning emphasised counsellors cannot tell the consumer their substance is safe.

Photo credit: Dan Roxanne

This protects counsellors from liability and disputes Premier Grant's statement on manslaughter. Mr. Tregoning cites the European 'best practice' guidelines: "Counsellors raise awareness about a drug's effects and side effects, and educate users about the methods of risk reduction. Operating this way, there is no breach of duty of care." Mr. Tregoning illustrates how the Commonwealth Department of Health has stated, "'We have an obligation to tell young people about the effects of a particular drug. We have a duty of care to educate young people about 'safer' use and harm minimisation.'" Mr. Tregoning feels the duty of care is broken by the presence of sniffer dogs at music festivals as it promotes riskier behaviour, such as taking all your drugs at once, a point echoed by Dr. Wodak.

So if the program is legal what constitutes success? "Being able to test substances that are bought, estimate the dose and the number of pills brought in," Dr. Wodak says. "We would also like to reduce the number of deaths but the chances of being able to prove that would be difficult for statistical reasons. But if we can reduce the number of hospitalisations that would help prove our case." Mr. Tregoning adds success is when there is a correlation between what is bought and what is being tested. "That comes through affecting the market to the extent there is significant reduction in substitution, misrepresentation and contamination of substances. International evidence shows it's achievable. We would also want to see behavioral impacts among consumers - especially consumers making the decision to discard particularly dangerous substances in the service's secure disposal bin," explains Mr. Tregoning.

Currently the drug testing trial is still in an primitive stage, but the program has received expressions of interest from music festivals in Australia. And with no legal opposition or potential for liability the only elements now blocking the trial is the NSW Government and the money needed to fund it.

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Alex Wodak