Pill Testing at Music Festivals: How does it work?

Pill Testing at Music Festivals: How does it work?

A 15-year-old girl from Sydney collapsed and stopped breathing at the Maitland leg of the Groovin the Moo festival in April. Fortunately, she was revived by paramedics who administered CPR. News reports indicate that the girl was hospitalized and treated for a suspected drug overdose. Given the number of festival participants who were found in possession of Ecstasy (MDMA) — most of them juveniles — it seems likely that the girl’s collapse was related to Ecstasy consumption.

Law enforcement has not proven to be an effective means of deterring illicit drug consumption or preventing the potentially tragic consequences of taking recreational drugs. Public education might be a more effective means of minimising the potential harm associated with illicit drug use, but young people are experimental by nature, and it is wishful thinking to believe that any strategy will completely deter drug use.

Accepting the inevitability of illicit drug consumption, a pilot program, endorsed by the ACT government, allowed participants in Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival to test the contents of their illicit drugs. “Pill testing” is designed to protect drug users from unsafe products. Drug consumers who know what’s in a pill before they take it are at less risk of overdosing or of swallowing a pill that might have unintended effects.

How Pill Testing Works

According to ACT Health, a small sample is scraped from each pill provided for testing. The sample is then analysed. Staff informs the person who provided the pill of its contents, of the effects that the drug might have, and of the risks of taking the drug.

Dealers who sell illicit drugs sometimes “cut” or adulterate pills by adding other drugs or chemicals to reduce their costs. In some cases, added chemicals are meant to simulate the effect of the drug the dealer is purporting to sell. Sellers sometimes substitute more dangerous but less expensive drugs, like PMA, for Ecstasy. Pill testing helps drug purchasers learn whether they received the drug they paid for.

Whether to take a pill after it has been tested is for the person who purchased it to decide. Individuals who learn that the contents of a pill are not what they expected, or who were unaware of potentially negative effects of a pill and choose not to take that risk, can dump the pill into “amnesty bin” filled with bleach.

The testing is performed by a mobile laboratory staffed by chemists and healthcare providers who have volunteered their time. The lab equipment is provided by non-government organisations. The testing area is enclosed to protect the privacy of festival participants who choose to have their drugs tested. Privacy safeguards are meant to encourage testing by alleviating fears that the police will take note of festival participants who are using drugs.

Limitations of Pill Testing

Pill testing is not perfect. Testing procedures are meant to be quick rather than conclusive. The limited testing at a festival is not as comprehensive as the analysis that occurs in a laboratory setting and uses expensive equipment. It is possible that pill testing at festivals will misidentify drugs or fail to identify adulterants.

In addition, no amount of testing can identify an Ecstasy pill as “safe.” Different people react to drugs in different ways. A safe dose for one person might be an overdose for someone else. Drugs that are marketed by pharmaceutical companies undergo rigorous testing, and even those drugs sometimes turn out to be dangerous for some patients. Festival participants who have their drugs tested are advised of those risks so they can make an informed decision about whether to take a pill after it has been analysed.

The Strategy of Harm Reduction

The pilot program is based on the understanding that some festival participants will take Ecstasy or other pills, and no law enforcement efforts that do not transform a fun festival into a prison environment are going to change that reality. Rather than preventing participants from taking drugs, the ACT’s strategy is to reduce the harm that may be associated with the choice to use an illicit drug.

Harm reduction is meant to minimize the adverse consequences of illicit drug use rather than minimizing illicit drug use. While harm reduction is controversial in some segments of society, it has been a part of Australia’s comprehensive drug strategy since 1993.

Harm reduction is not the same as harm avoidance. One survey found that 27% of festival participants would never supply their pills for testing; while another 42% would only test their drugs if they did not know the seller or had doubts about the drug they purchased. However, if the pilot program is extended and publicized, more music festival participants may be willing to have their drugs tested in the future.

Arguments For and Against Pill Testing

People who oppose pill testing, including some doctors, worry that drug users who have their pills tested will regard the analysis as certifying the safety or purity of the drug. One study suggests that pill testing provides an artificial “shine of safety” that encourages drug users to disregard the risk of taking an illicit pill. On the other hand, the fact that the pill was purchased is strong evidence that the purchaser intends to take the pill, whether or not it is tested. Providing test results with a caution that safety cannot be guaranteed may discourage pill users from assuming that a pill is safe simply because it has been tested.

Notwithstanding those concerns, pill testing has succeeded in identifying adulterated drugs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that drug purchasers will, at least on occasion, dispose of pills that are not what the purchasers believed them to be. To that extent, while pill testing is no assurance of safety, the program may save lives or prevent adverse health consequences that would otherwise result from taking adulterated or “fake” drugs.

We know that a significant number of people who attend music festivals will take illicit pills. We know that law enforcement cannot prevent that from happening. And while we know that pill testing does not eliminate the risk inherent in illicit drug use, we also know that it has the potential to save lives. While pill testing has reportedly received little political support in New South Wales, the pilot program in ACT should be expanded to include NSW and the rest of Australia. As a moral concern, saving lives should be ultimate goal of Australian drug policy.