September 2, 2021
Pill testing in Australia
Not far across the border, our closest neighbour – New Zealand – recently announced pill testing (also called drug checking) would become legal across the country after its successful trialling at music festivals and events.1
Currently in Australia, we don’t have pill testing services available, but we have successfully trialled it twice – in the ACT in 2018 and 2019.2
Pill testing is not a new phenomenon.
These services have existed across Europe since the 1990s and are currently available in 20 countries in Europe and the Americas – and now New Zealand.3
What is pill testing?
This harm reduction strategy allows a person who is already in possession of a drug to test it at a facility or booth to find out what’s actually in it.4
Pill testing services are set up in places where drug use commonly occurs, such as music festivals, clubs or dance parties. They can also be set up in community health centres or treatment services – like these ones in Toronto.
What are the benefits of pill testing?
Pill testing has three main goals:
- to prevent people from using unusually strong or contaminated drugs
- to communicate messages around safer drug use and reducing harm
- to improve user knowledge on how certain drugs can affect them.5
In Australia, there have been a number of well-publicised hospitalisations and deaths of young people after taking substances at festivals and nightclubs.
In many of these cases, the person took a substance that was stronger than expected, or it had a dangerous contaminant they did not know about.6-8
When a person brings their substance to a pill testing service, it’s an opportunity to learn more about what it actually contains versus what they believed the drug contained.
The test can provide on-the-spot information about the drug’s contents – knowledge that can lead a person to decide not to take it, potentially saving their life.9
In addition to preventing avoidable deaths, pill testing can also:
- Create an opportunity for confidential conversations about harm reduction, counselling and support services between drug users and testing staff. For some people this might be the first chance they’ve had to talk with health services about their drug use, and pill testing provides a unique opportunity to do this in a safe and non-judgemental space.5, 7
- Help detect when a drug market is circulating potentially more dangerous substances. This is particularly useful for emergency services and can provide an early warning system (alerting the public to dangerous drugs in the community).7
- Collect information on drug use trends in festival and nightlife environments. This info can be used to help build research and knowledge to assist police and health services in reducing drug-related harms in these settings.10, 11
Do Australians support pill testing?
Many Australians do in fact support pill testing:
- In the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 57% of Australians supported pill testing, and 27% were directly opposed.12
- In the 2019 Australian Election Study survey, 63% supported pill testing, and 21% were directly opposed.2
- A 2016 survey at an Australian music festival found 86.5% of respondents believed drug testing could help users reduce harm. 87.1% also said they would likely use this service if it was available.13
In NSW, an inquest into six drug-related deaths at festivals from 2017 to 2019 prompted the state coroner to recommend NSW trial pill testing. In her words, pill testing “is simply an evidence-based harm-reduction strategy that should be trialled as soon as possible.”14
In Victoria, the state coroner also recommended the state trial pill testing after an investigation into the deaths of five young men under similar circumstances. The coroner stated this change should happen as “a matter of urgency to reduce the number of preventable deaths.”8
Public health experts across Australia have also thrown their support behind pill testing:
- Public Health Association Australia
- Australian Medical Association
- Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
- Royal Australian College of Physicians
Is pill testing supported by evidence?
There is promising evidence across the globe which shows pill testing can alter drug-taking behaviour, potentially saving lives and reducing harm.5, 15-17
A study on Austria’s pill testing service found that half of the respondents said test results affected their consumption. Most said they would wait for a result before taking the drug, and if the result was bad, two thirds said they would not take it and inform friends.18
A similar study in the Netherlands found that if the test results were unexpected, many respondents chose not to take the pill.19
In a study of the UK’s first onsite drug checking service, 49 people (21%) chose to dispose of their substance upon hearing the test result. Another 22 said they would take it over a longer period of time, and seven said they would take a smaller amount of the drug.20
In the 2019 ACT trial of pill testing in Australia, the substance N-ethylpentylone was found on seven occasions, which has been linked to multiple overdoses at overseas music festivals. In each case it was found, the person discarded the pill.21
During New Zealand’s trialling of their pill testing service, 68% of people surveyed reported changing their behaviour after using a drug checking service, with 87% of those also claiming their knowledge of harm reduction had improved.1
Research has also shown having pill testing at festivals or events does not encourage people to use drugs.22, 23
An evaluation of Zurich’s drug checking service showed there was no increase in the amount of recreational drugs being consumed since the service started.24 In fact, a 2003 evaluation found it actually resulted in less use amongst some ecstasy users.24
Despite a lot of promising evidence, some opponents remain unconvinced.2 However, running trials is a key way to strengthen the evidence-base and see what the potential benefits and harms might be.2
Trialling pill testing is another step we can take towards developing more evidence-based approaches to reducing drug-related harm in Australia.
- Hutton F. Drug Checking at New Zealand Festivals: Final Report. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington; 2020.
- McAllister I, Makkai T. The effect of public opinion and politics on attitudes towards pill testing: Results from the 2019 Australian Election Study. Drug and Alcohol Review [Internet]. 2021 2021/05/01 [cited 2021 August 31]; 40(4):[521-9 pp.]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.13211.
- ACT Government. Health: Pill Testing 2020 [cited 2021 June 8].
- Ventura M, Noijen J, Bücheli A, Isvy A, Van Hurck C. Drug checking service: good practice standards. European Union: Nightlife Empowerment and Well-Being Implementation Project (NEWIP); 2013.
- Olsen A, Wong G, McDonald D. ACT Pill Testing Trial 2019: Program evaluation. Canberra ACT: Australian National University; 2019.
- Tran A, Nguyen D, Pham J, Brosnan C. Inquest into the death of six patrons of NSW music festivals. State Coroner's Court of New South Wales; 2019.
- Butterfield RJ, Barratt MJ, Ezard N, Day RO. Drug checking to improve monitoring of new psychoactive substances in Australia. The Medical Journal of Australia [Internet]. 2016 Mar 7 [cited 2021 August 31]; 204(4):[144-5 pp.]. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.5694/mja15.01058.
- Bucci N. Victorian coroner backs pill testing after inquest into deaths of four men and a boy: The Guardian; 2021 [cited 2021 August 10].
- Barratt MJ, Ezard N. Drug checking interventions can track the nature and size of the discrepancy between self-report and actual drugs consumed. Addiction. 2016;111(3):558-9.
- Camilleri AM, Caldicott D. Underground pill testing, down under. Forensic Science International. 2005;151(1):53-8.
- Groves A. ‘Worth the test?’ Pragmatism, pill testing and drug policy in Australia. Harm Reduction Journal. 2018;15(1):12.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.
- Day N, Criss J, Griffiths B, Gujral SK, John-Leader F, Johnston J, et al. Music festival attendees’ illicit drug use, knowledge and practices regarding drug content and purity: a cross-sectional survey. Harm Reduction Journal. 2018;15(1):1.
- Lyons A. Coroner’s report recommends drug policy overhaul in NSW: newsGP; 2019 [cited 2021 August 12].
- Munn MB, Lund A, Golby R, Turris SA. Observed Benefits to On-site Medical Services during an Annual 5-day Electronic Dance Music Event with Harm Reduction Services. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. 2016;31(2):228-34.
- Valente H, Martins D, Carvalho H, Pires CV, Carvalho MC, Pinto M, et al. Evaluation of a drug checking service at a large scale electronic music festival in Portugal. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2019;73:88-95.
- Makkai T, Macleod M, Vumbaca G, Hill G, Caldicott D, Noffs M. Report on the ACT GTM Pill Testing Pilot: a Harm Reduction Service. Canberra: Safety Testing Advisory Service At Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) Consortium; 2018.
- Kriener H, Schmid R.Check your pills. Check your life. ChEck iT! High quality on-site testing of illicit substances. Information, counselling and safer use measures at raves in Austria 2005 [cited 2021 August 12].
- Van de Wijngaart G, Braam R, De Bruin D, Fris M, Maalsté N, Verbraeck H. Ecstasy in het uitgaanscircuit [Ecstasy and the Dutch rave scene: a socio-epidemiologic study on the nature and extent of, and the risks involved in using ecstasy and other party drugs at dance events]. Addiction Research Institute, Utrecht Report. 1997.
- Measham FC. Drug safety testing, disposals and dealing in an English field: Exploring the operational and behavioural outcomes of the UK’s first onsite ‘drug checking’ service. International Journal of Drug Policy [Internet]. 2019 2019/05/01/ [cited 2021 August 31]; 67:[102-7 pp.].
- Vumbaca G, Tzanetis S, McLeod M, Caldicott D,. Report on the 2nd ACT GTM Pill Testing Pilot: a Harm Reduction Service. Harm Reduction Australia; 2019.
- Tibor B. Drug checking as a harm reduction tool for recreational drug users: opportunities and challenges. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction; 2017.
- European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. European Drug Report: Trends and Developments. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union; 2016.
- Hungerbuehler I, Buecheli A, Schaub M. Drug Checking: A prevention measure for a heterogeneous group with high consumption frequency and polydrug use - evaluation of zurich's drug checking services. Harm Reduction Journal [Internet]. 2011 2011/06/10 [cited 2021 August 31]; 8(1):[16 p.].