Queensland pill testing move ‘will save lives’

Jolyon Attwooll

27/02/2023 4:22:44 PM

The Queensland state government is set to introduce pill testing for the first time, a move that has been backed by the RACGP.

A pill-testing machine
A pill-testing machine on display at a demonstration event in Canberra in 2019. (Image: AAP Photos/ Lukas Coch)

‘It is evidence-based policy that makes sense and will save lives.’
That is the view of Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine, reacting to a Queensland Government announcement that pill testing clinics will be introduced in the state for the first time.
A Queensland Government spokesperson said on Saturday that the pill-testing services will analyse illicit drugs for potentially dangerous substances and chemical compounds, with the aim of changing the behaviour of users, as well as helping to minimise the risks of drug use.
Dr Wilson says it is an effective approach.
‘We know the criminal justice approach doesn’t work,’ she told newsGP.  ‘This is pragmatic and we know it works.
‘It’s about offering options so that people who are going to use drugs – because we know people do – can do it safely. Having these options is really worthwhile.’
The Queensland Government says it is working on protocols around testing and referenced the ‘successful’ recent trials that have run in Canberra.
A six-month trial fixed site that began in the ACT in July last year has recently been extended at least until August 2023.
The fixed site trial, known as CanTEST, involved the testing of 371 samples in its first four months, with around 15 per cent of samples voluntarily thrown away after the tests.
An interim report conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) recommended the service continue.
‘For most service users, it was their first interaction with a healthcare professional to discuss drug use (62%),’ the ANU report states.
‘Just under half of the drugs tested were not what service users thought it was.’
According to Dr Wilson, pill testing can change behaviour not just among those who use the service, but also among their peer group.
‘What happens is that when they get their substance tested, if they find out that it’s dangerous, they don't take it,’ she said.
Dr Wilson said that, alongside recreational drug users, another important group likely to be helped by the service are people with addictions who may find a way in for broader help.
‘Coming across a non-judgmental, helpful, healthcare worker that can support them to get into treatment – and we know treatment works – is fantastic,’ she said.
ACT Health said the CanTEST service delivered 436 health, alcohol and drug interventions in its first four months, with some people reportedly receiving multiple interventions during the same visit.
Dr Wilson, in the meantime, believes other state governments around the country should follow the example set by Queensland and the ACT and introduce pill testing.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has faced criticisms in recent weeks for not considering a similar move.
In 2019, in a report commissioned after several deaths at music festivals from drug overdoses, the NSW Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame said that she was ‘in no doubt whatsoever that there is sufficient evidence to support a drug checking trial’.
The Queensland Government said it is now going out to market to identify a provider to offer the pill testing trial.
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Dr DK   28/02/2023 2:20:37 PM

This is clearly a complex problem with no perfect answer. There is clearly value in providing a means to educate potential users about the dangers of the drugs, and that needs to be done in a non-judgmental way to be effective.
However, I think many of us are concerned about the idea of normalising the use of recreational drugs and we need to be careful about the language we use and the message we send.

From the article: ‘What happens is that when they get their substance tested, if they find out that it’s dangerous, they don't take it," misses the point that the substances are inherently dangerous, even if they are what the substance the user expected. That's why they are illegal. We need to ensure that we aren't seen to be saying "Your ecstacy is just ecstacy, with no bad stuff in it, so it's safe to take."