Festival Goers May Soon Be Able to Test the Safety of their Drugs

Alex Wodak, the Australian drug expert who pioneered the nation’s first legal heroin injecting centre, has found himself at the centre of another controversy, after announcing plans to pilot a pill testing program at music festivals across the country.

David Caldicott, an emergency medical specialist who has joined forces with Mr Wodak to sponsor the scheme, told the Sydney Morning Herald they would continue with the trial, despite opposition from the Government: “It’s very straight forward. We want to run a trial at a place where everyone is using drugs anyway. It’s time for our politicians and elected representatives to catch up with what the majority of parents want for their children, which is for them to return home safe.”

The duo hope to provide the first mobile laboratory-grade drug testing service in Australia, using a van staffed with toxicologists, and shielded from police by barriers of supporters willing to risk arrest to protect others from prosecution.

Mr Wodak said $100,000 would be crowdsourced to run the pilot, the bulk of which would be used to buy the lab testing equipment, and to cover the travel costs for the toxicologist and technicians – who he said would provide about $40,000 of free labour. At least $15,000 of the funds would be used to have the trial independently evaluated by scientists.

The NSW Government has already voiced opposition to the plan. On Monday, Deputy Premier Troy Grant told 2UE radio he believes it’s a “very dangerous regime that the NSW government fundamentally rejects”. He went on to threaten legal penalties for those involved, including prosecution for drug possession and drug supply, and manslaughter charges if a pill given the all-clear prove fatal.

However, Mr Grant also conceded: “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.” For a Government claiming to have policies based on evidence, this makes things a little awkward.

What is Pill Testing?

Pill testing can take various forms, simpler tests are done with litmus kits which indicate the presence of certain substances – such as, methamphetamine and poisonous cutting agents – while more sophisticated tests use laboratory equipment to give a precise rundown of the pill’s chemical ingredients.

Tests don’t advise whether a substance is “safe” or “unsafe”; rather, they determine purity levels and detect any dangerous additives, allowing the user to make an informed decision. If dangerous poisonous substances are detected, users can safely discard the drug in an amnesty bin.

Professor Alison Ritter, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, has argued that this approach is a win for both drug users and health advocates: “[Drug] checking does not mean drug use will become legal. It means providing people who have chosen to use drugs with the opportunity to be better informed about the drugs they may consume and to be provided with information that could prevent harm.”

Advocates argue that giving young people more information about the substances they are proposing to take allows them to make better and safer decision. They add that the Government’s use of sniffer dogs and zero-tolerance policy on drugs has led risky drug taking behaviours, such as “loading up”, and deaths from overdoses.

What does the research say?

A 2014 study by the United Nations found that Australians have the highest rate of ecstasy consumption in the world.

Another study conducted in the same year suggested that Australian ecstasy is also one of the most unsafe, due to wildly fluctuating purity levels and potentially deadly additives. The study compared ecstasy pills from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, and using data from drug review sites EcstasyData.org and PillReports.net, found Australian ecstasy ranked highest in paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA), a toxic substance which causes extreme body temperature, seizures, and has been linked to a string of deaths both in Australia and overseas.

Along with helping users identify these substances, research has shown that pill testing helps shift these products away from the black market. Products identified as particularly dangerous subsequently became the subject of warning campaigns, and eventually became unsellable, forcing suppliers to use safer ingredients.

Unlike sniffer dogs, which have been shown to have next to no impact on drug use, 50% of those who have 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.

Finally, pill testing allows policy makers and health professionals to capture long-term data about the actual substances present in the drug scene, allowing for an early warning systems to communicate beyond immediate users. This is more important than ever, with new psychoactive substances frequently appearing in Australia.

Criminal liability

Despite the Government’s threats, police have indicated that they would be reluctant to arrest pill testers for drug possession or supply. However, they have also indicated that “the question of criminality associated with the possession and use of testing kits would depend on the circumstances”.

The law makes it clear that a person cannot be charged with drug supply for receiving a prohibited drug from the owner and giving it back to them a short time later. Testers could not, therefore, be found guilty of drug supply for simply testing the contents of drugs and returning them to the owner. Drug possession, on the other hand, merely requires knowledge that the substance is a prohibited drug and custody or control of that drug. There is an argument, therefore, that testers risk the prospect of being charged with drug possession.

Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery has dismissed Mr Grant’s claim that pill testers could be charged with manslaughter. Mr Cowdery, who served as NSW’s head prosecutor for 17 years, told the Sydney Morning Herald that any potential liability for manslaughter could easily be avoided: “The manslaughter suggestion is nonsense. The testers would devise a process and form of words that avoided any liability for mishaps that might later occur [such as] illness or death.”

Previous attempts

This isn’t the first time pill testing has been trialled in Australia. Enlighten Harm Reduction ran on-site drug-checking at festivals and events in Victoria until 2007, when political pressure and a lack of support forced the organisation to abandon it. Between 2000 and 2005, Enlighten set up stalls at about 40 dance parties in Victoria and South Australia, testing between 100 and 200 pills a night.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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