New pill testing report released

Amanda Lyons

29/08/2019 1:44:14 PM

Seven drugs at this year’s Groovin’ the Moo festival contained a toxic substance linked to previous deaths, according to the report.

Festivals, David Caldicott, Gladys Berejiklian
While considered a success by some, pill-testing trials remain a divisive issue across Australia.

Pill Testing Australia (PTA) has released its full report on the outcomes of pill testing at this year’s Groovin’ the Moo festival, held in Canberra in April.
This is the second year pill testing was trialled at the festival.
This year’s service tested 170 substances for 234 participants, twice the number of those who presented at the pill testing facility last year.
Health warnings and safety information were provided to all patrons. The average age of people testing their pills was 19, with attendants ranging in age from 15 through to 40.
Of the pills tested, MDMA was the predominant substance identified, well ahead of cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine.
The report noted that seven of the drugs tested contained N-Ethylpentylone, a toxic substance linked to previous festival-goer deaths, and that all patrons who were told they had such pills used the amnesty bin to discard them.
‘The service was very well-received by patrons with many providing feedback that they would change their behaviour by reconsidering or taking less of the substances they had in their possession,’ the PTA report read.
The report also noted pill testers’ ability to work closely with ACT medical services. The fact the testing service was located within the medical facility allowed for ‘real-time exchange of information between all parties’.
Dr Caroline Johnson, a senior lecturer at the Department of General Practice at Melbourne Medical School, applauds the results.
‘Decisions about pill testing do need to be informed by evidence, not just anecdotes,’ she told newsGP. ‘I believe there is evidence that the benefits of pill testing outweigh the harms and this should continue to be evaluated in the Australian context.’
GP and integrative medicine practitioner Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos believes the report shows pill testing can help harm minimisation by creating a ‘pause or re-think’ for young people.
‘So if they do decide to take drugs at festivals, by entering a tent, this can be the opportunity for education of the potential harms of drugs, and educate them using respectful, non-judgemental dialogue,’ she told newsGP.
‘If they decide to go ahead and take the drugs regardless of the advice provided, at least it is reassuring it doesn’t contain N-Ethylpentylone, the highly toxic chemical blamed for festival drug deaths, and will hopefully reduce the risk of harm.’
However, some experts have questioned the science behind pill testing, in particular its limitations and subsequent impact on safety. Such critics include research toxicologist Dr Michelle Williams.
‘Mobile laboratory systems are not equipped to reliably detect “unknowns”,’ Dr Williams wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘Issues of tablet composition, stability and degradation to toxic products combined with incomplete testing options may lead the user to make a potentially fatal decision based on incomplete information.’
But Dr David Caldicott, an emergency physician with a special interest in toxicology who co-authored the PTA report, told newsGP he was extremely pleased with the findings. He believes a key value of pill testing lies in the opportunity it provides for face-to-face education.
‘I think it provides more evidence that the process of pill testing does what it claims to do, in that we can identify new drugs and persuade young people not to take them at music festivals,’ Dr Caldicott said.
‘At a very personal level, we can change the way drugs are used.
‘Perhaps more importantly, and more broadly, what we can do is demonstrate that at a music festival like Groovin’ the Moo in Canberra, which had over 20,000 attendees, there were only two people who presented to hospital via ambulance, which is very, very different to the experience of other jurisdictions at music festivals at Australia.
‘That’s not entirely to do with the process of pill testing, but it is to do with the level of organisation [that went in] to ensure that people don’t die at festivals.’

Emergency physician Dr David Caldicott believes the new report shows that pill testing can change the way drugs are used. (Image: Jeremy Piper)

Dr Caldicott is keen to dispel talk currently circulating that the government has chosen not to commit funding to pill testing at next year’s Groovin’ the Moo.
‘They haven’t said that,’ he said.
‘What they’ve said is that they won’t commit to funding next year’s Groovin’ the Moo until such time as they’ve read the independent evaluation, which is currently being prepared, and that’s entirely reasonable.’
Dr Caldicott went on to explain that this year’s festival featured an independent team to evaluate the findings of the pill testing service.
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the government maintains the position that the safest option is to ‘not take drugs’.
‘The ACT Government does not condone the use of illicit drugs, we know the safest option remains not to take drugs and this will always be our advice to the community,’ she said.
‘However, we also believe governments have a responsibility to not only try and prevent drug use, but also to support initiatives that reduce the harms associated with drug use.
‘This is why we have provided a supportive policy environment for the trials to take place in the ACT.’
Meanwhile, opposition to pill testing remains in other states and territories.
The Tasmanian Government rejected suggestions for a pill-testing trial to be held at this year’s Dark MoFo festival in Hobart, with then-State Health Minister Michael Ferguson confirming his opposition in a statement to Parliament.
‘We do believe that such an initiative can send a very dangerous and risky message,’ he said.
‘We don't support quality controlling illegal drugs that are being pushed by drug pushers.’
The Victorian Government has also remained steadfast in its opposition, maintaining that pill testing would give festival-goers a false sense of security about illicit drugs.
‘Obviously over the years we’ve had at this, and at other festivals, the issue of drug-taking,’ Ballarat’s Superintendent of Police, Jenny Wilson, said in response to pleas from festival organisers and the Pyrenees Shire Mayor to allow pill testing at the Rainbow Serpent festival earlier this year. 
‘We have a zero tolerance around people taking illicit drugs; they are illicit drugs for a reason. It’s well documented how dangerous it is to take these things.
‘The reality for us is there’s a number of issues, nobody knows exactly what’s in the drug they are taking, people’s own health and physiology means they react in different ways, so it’s very unpredictable the outcome.
‘What we want is a drug-free event that people can come along and enjoy it and that’s our goal … into the future of the event.’
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has long been firmly resistant to pill testing despite a rash of drug-related illnesses and deaths at music festivals in the state, stating she didn’t want pill testing to give ‘a green light to take these drugs’.
However, the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into the drug ‘Ice’ and a coronial inquest into the number of pill-related deaths in the state are both considering the recommendation of pill testing in NSW.
While the ACT Government awaits the results of its own report, the PTA’s report recommends all other states and territories consider accepting its offer, made earlier this year, of a free pill-testing pilot to assess suitability for their jurisdiction.
‘We’ll pick up the cost, we will travel, and we will do that to show them what’s involved,’ Dr Caldicott said.

ACT harm minimisation pill testing

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Dr Marshall Francis Antony Donnelly   30/08/2019 2:01:52 PM

This is the problem when science and good medicine meet head on with politicians ,If pill testing saves one life it’s a success .

Dr Wilson Chong   30/08/2019 4:14:45 PM

"The report noted that seven of the drugs tested contained N-Ethylpentylone, a toxic substance linked to previous festival-goer deaths, and that all patrons who were told they had such pills used the amnesty bin to discard them."

Does this then send the implicit message to festival-goers that those pills found not to contain N-Ethylpentylone are safe to ingest? Or that those who had died ingesting pills with N-Ethylpentylone died solely due to the N-Ethylpentylone (and not due to the MDMA)?

Dr No   30/08/2019 6:58:21 PM

1. People take drugs. The majority of drug users experience little to no harm from their experiences, so this “drugs are illicit for a reason” stuff is nonsense.

2. Don’t you have someone to ask other than Vicki Kotsirilos? Yet another comment about evidence from this “integrative GP” - the irony is nauseating.

Dr. Patrick McSharry   31/08/2019 4:25:11 AM

Agree Dr. Donnelly. I did the "medico-politics "thing in the USA and we had some success. Generally though if you overblow your own 'trumpet" like what seems to be happening with this pill testing thing , it will backfire. If it is a segue to a more intensive campaign such as Opioid Crisis and PDMP's , MAT programs and a real effort to get ahead of the curve then it is worthwhile.
Overall it appears to be just an "attention grabber" soundbite and bot a really serious effort to tackle Substance Use Disorders (As Defined in DSM V) and is distracting away from the pre- epidemic that is beginning in Australia.

Dr Cho Oo Maung   11/12/2019 9:11:58 AM

Pill testing is wasting the resources. Social drug is illegal. Try not to make illicit drug to be legal. People buy illicit drugs using tax payer money via center link. Drug dealers get richer. They make higher price of housing in Cities. That makes difficult to us to meet the daily need of economy. We are strangulating ourselves making drug dealers richer via drug users. Whoever use drugs should be detained by compulsory order at drug and alcohol units. Force to rehab. and nobody should use illicit drug.

Dr Cho Oo Maung   11/12/2019 9:14:42 AM

If somebody dies after using the drug which was tested by pill testers who will be liable for medico-legal law suit and could cost billion of money for litigation which will support drug users to use more drug. Drug dealers get richer.

kelsey   27/02/2020 10:54:59 AM

I don't approve of drugs.