Australia’s first fixed pill-testing site opens in ACT

Jolyon Attwooll

20/07/2022 3:47:15 PM

The Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine has welcomed the ‘highly significant’ launch, which is part of a six-month trial.

MDMA pills
The ACT has previously had pill-testing facilities put in place temporarily.

‘It would be great for us all around Australia to have access to this.’
That is the reaction of Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine, as the first fixed site pill-testing site in Australia opens in the ACT.
Run by ACT Health, the CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service opens on 21 July and will operate on Thursdays and Fridays in central Canberra for a six-month trial.
It will be operated by Directions Health Services, a community organisation for people impacted by alcohol, drugs and other addictions, offering pill testing, harm reduction advice and drop-in nurse consultations for general health, sexual health and mental health.
Its launch is a development that Dr Wilson unequivocally welcomes.
‘It’s highly significant,’ she told newsGP.
‘ACT has led the way with providing pills and substance safety checking at festivals. I think this is such an important aspect of harm minimisation for people who use substances.’
Dr Wilson says its introduction acknowledges the reality that people will keep taking illicit substances, regardless of the law.
‘That will continue but what we want to do is to allow that to continue safely,’ she said.
The additional services offering support and information including referral options for people who may come to harm due to drug use are particularly welcome, according to Dr Wilson.
‘It’s a really great way of engaging with people who are using drugs, to assist them to do that more safely and to look at the issues in their lives that might be driving the drug use,’ she said.
The testing site can also help address the issue of drugs being mis-sold, according to Dr Wilson – an issue she says can have deadly consequences.
‘We’ve had recent coroner’s cases where we’ve seen the deaths of people attending festivals because they haven’t had access to check their drugs,’ she said.
‘If people are given the opportunity to get their drugs tested, if they find out that it’s not safe, that it’s not what they think it is, they will alter their behaviour.
‘I want them to have information so that they can make reasoned decisions … that they’ve got somewhere safe to go where they can get good information, good advice to support them to do that more safely.’
A survey carried out during the 2019 election suggested that the majority of Australians – around 63% – support the idea of pill testing at music festivals.
Dr Wilson also believes the presence of fixed site testing services could benefit GPs.
‘We are trusted by our patients, and they do ask us about this and expect us to be able to talk to them about it,’ she said.
‘It’s a great thing to be able to say to a person who’s using, do you know ... there’s a place that you can go to get the substance that you use checked to make sure that you’re going to be okay?’
Expanding access to offer similar services elsewhere, particularly in more rural areas, is a development Dr Wilson still hopes for – although she describes the debate as ‘highly politicised’, which she says does not always allow policy to be based on evidence.
The ACT has previously had pill-testing facilities put in place on a temporary basis, both times to coincide with the Groovin the Moo Festival in 2018 and 2019. In the latter year, there were seven dangerous substances identified, with people dumping potentially unsafe pills.
The move caused considerable debate, with toxicologists at the time telling newsGP they had concerns about the accuracy of the testing as well as the possibility the site could encourage more drug use.
It is not, however, a concern shared by Dr Wilson.
‘I would be strongly supportive of it rolling around out all around Australia,’ she said.
The CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service is on the ground floor, City Community Health Centre at 1 Moore Street in Canberra. It is free, and open every Thursday from 10 am – 1 pm, and on Fridays from 6 pm – 9 pm.
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