Six Reasons for Pill Testing

Ecstasy4.jpgPill testing, or drug checking as it’s known in Europe, provides feedback to users on the content of illegal drugs, allowing them to make informed choices.

Taking illicit drugs, especially ecstasy, is not particularly unusual. A 2010 survey found more than 11% of 20- to 29-year-olds and 7% of 18- to 19-year-olds had taken the drug in the previous 12 months. According to annual research among 1,000 ecstasy users, 70% of these pills are taken at clubs, festivals and dance parties.

Australia is internationally applauded for our harm-minimisation approach to drugs but we have failed to introduce pill testing, even though it is an intuitively appealing strategy.

Wide support

Pill-testing kits or booths at venues where pills are known to be consumed could inform users about the content of illicit drugs. As we have equipment that can test drugs in real time, people intending to take them could have them checked beforehand.

Research shows young people are highly supportive of pill testing; more than 82% of the 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 supported its introduction. The finding is consistent with young people’s overall views about drugs: they want better information in order to make informed choices.

Pill testing is not a radical idea. As a harm-reduction intervention provided by community and local governments, it’s available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France. But the legal status of the service is unclear and there is no formal government endorsement of the measure.

Nonetheless, its effectiveness is strongly grounded in evidence. There are good reasons why this country should introduce the measure.

Five good reasons

First, pill testing has been shown to change the black market. Products identified as particularly dangerous that subsequently became the subject of warning campaigns were found to leave the market.

Research also shows the ingredients of tested pills started to correspond to the expected components over time. This suggests pill testing might be able to change the black market in positive ways.

Third, pill testing changes behaviour: research from Austria shows 50% of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn friends in cases of negative results.

Visits to pill-testing booths create an important opportunity for providing support and information over and above the testing itself. They enable drug services to contact a population that is otherwise difficult to reach because these people are not experiencing acute drug problems. Indeed, the intervention has been used to establish contact and as the basis for follow-up work with members of not-yet-problematic, but nevertheless high-risk, groups of recreational drug users.

Finally, pill testing means we can capture long-term data about the actual substances present in the drug scene. And it creates the potential for an early warning system beyond immediate users. This is becoming all the more important as new psychoactive substances that may be used as adulterants are appearing more frequently.

Not a panacea

A harm-reduction approach to drugs is always a balance between benefits and risks: the availability of pill testing reduces harm, but it may increase risks for some. Not everyone will use the service and some may ignore the results and risk being subject to potentially harmful drugs.

It may also lend the appearance of safety when, in reality, the pills remain illegal and potentially harmful. What’s more, we will need to ensure that pill-testing results are accurate by researching the effectiveness of testing kits.

Of course, critics will argue the measure will “send the wrong message”. But the messages we’re currently sending are that we don’t want informed consumers and we don’t want to reduce harm from illicit drug use. They’re clearly not quite right either.

Australia should run a trial of pill testing and assess its benefits and harms so we can then make an informed choice about this intervention.

The growth in new psychoactive substances and the ever-evolving chemical composition of drugs, coupled with the need to reduce the harms from pill use, means this is an idea whose time has come. And although the coroner has yet to confirm the exact cause of her death, the final reason for introducing pill testing is that it may help avoid the needless loss of young lives like that of Georgina Bartter.

Professor Alison Ritter is the Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonRitter1.

This article was originally published on The Conversation and reproduced on the Drug Policy Modelling Program website. Read the original article.


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  • Robert Trimbole
    funny, I thought these so-called ‘pills’ are illegal drugs and it is a criminal act to make, sell, distribute or acquire ? is that NOT so now??
    what else would you like to legalise, driving a car under the influence of drugs, rape or child pornography or maybe even assaulting police ? where does it end?
    why do you think society makes certain things illegal? its called the Rule of Law and that is designed to protect all people in society
    Its a pathetic human that lives for cheap short term anti-social thrills at the expense of others
    You seriously need to talk to the paramedics and medical staff who have to deal with drug taking losers and put up with their drug-crazed abuse and violence
    Pill testing won’t stop illegal drug users dying, it just attempts to legitimise the cause
    Get a grip
  • Simon Ireland
    The hidden question here is who should be paying for pill testing. If it’s so valuable then the end user should pay. We don’t ask governments to pay for our car insurance.
    There’s also a fundamentally flawed assumption most people make; pill testing makes taking illicit substances safe.
    Even if test results indicate a high purity of the expected illicit drug, that’s no guarantee that taking the drug won’t result in death or permanent disability. If the results come back indicating other chemicals are in the pill, there is no “go” or “no go” indicator. It’s just more information which the average drug consumer may not be able to interpret responsibly meaning there is still a likelihood they will take the pill irrespective.
    The amount of deaths is astonishingly low due to party drug consumption. The cost of implementing government funded testing is likely to massively disproportionate compared to other proven life saving public health initiatives like life guards, smoking risk and anti-drink/drive advertisements.
    Then there’s the question of what happens if the pill testing is faulty and death occurs. Who is liable? I know the question seems absurd to some but the fact we’re even having the pill testing debate is equally absurd.
    Everyone knows from the time they are children that taking drugs is bad. It’s a personal decision which means personal responsibility. Trying to introduce government funded pill testing to make it safer is sending a bad message and implementing a false safety net. We’d be better off funding greater drug awareness initiatives.
    The links between drugs and crime are long established. They destroy lives and cost society in many ways. Pill testing will do absolutely nothing to resolve these issues. It may well increase illicit drug trafficking as more people consume drugs assuming there are now safe with a pill testing regime available.
  • Dianne Murray
    How many more kids need to die? Saying no to taking drugs doesnt work.
  • Alison Ritter