Trial designer reflects on Australia’s first music festival pill-testing service

Amanda Lyons

3/05/2018 3:45:30 PM

Taking pills at a music festival should never cost a person their life, emergency physician Dr David Caldicott told newsGP.

Almost 130 people took their pills to be tested at Groovin the Moo in the ACT, and more spoke to the pill-testing team.
Almost 130 people took their pills to be tested at Groovin the Moo in the ACT, and more spoke to the pill-testing team.

Constant thumping music and a sea of sweaty limbs; threading your way through people covered in glitter and flower crowns and, in the case of some, very little else; waiting in line for foodtruck fare and portable toilets – these are the joys of the music festival.
And for a significant number of young people – whether people like it or not – this list will also include illicit drugs.
‘I understand the moral concerns some people have, but some people in our community like getting intoxicated and use pills to help them party,’ Dr Hester Wilson, GP and Chair of the RACGP Addiction Medicine Specific Interests network, told newsGP.
‘It’s all very well for us to say, “Don’t take drugs”, but the fact is that they do – and they’re dying.’
Dr David Caldicott, who has a special interest in toxicology, has long been aware of this fact. Having worked for 15 years to launch a pill-testing trial at a music festival in Australia, he finally succeeded at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival last weekend.

A collaboration among Dr Caldicott’s consortium, Safety and Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA–SAFE), the ACT Government and the territory’s police force, he deems the trial an unqualified success.
‘Everything we wanted the trial to do was proven,’ Dr Caldicott told newsGP. ‘There were no aspects we were disappointed with, it was just awesome.’
For Dr Caldicott, harm reduction is the fundamental principle behind the trial.
‘It’s much easier to give people lessons in bad life choices if they are still alive, and I think this is how medicine should come at this,’ he said.
This harm-reduction focus is what informs Dr Caldicott’s strategy of testing pills at music festivals, because he believes this allows young people to make an informed decision, right at the coalface.
‘You get to sit down with the consumer and talk to them in the music festival environment, and this is very important from a preventive medicine perspective,’ he said. ‘Everybody is focused on the glamour of the test results and it’s just a little sneaky of us, because we’re using that, like an angler fish, to draw young people in to talk to us.’
Dr Caldicott assembled an experienced team for the trial, including two research chemists from the Australian National University to test the pills, himself to offer a medical context to the revealed information, and peer advisers from Victorian harm-reduction organisation DanceWize to provide relatable advice to young people on drugs and health.
The pill-testing station was set up adjacent to the festival’s medical tent, and contained a machine called a fourier transform infrared spectrometer, which is able to detect a large range of ingredients lurking inside punters’ pills.
‘It turns up in real-time, in front of the consumer, maybe something that will give them a good effect, in their eyes. But, frequently, [it shows] a list of contaminants and ingredients they’ve never heard of,’ Dr Caldicott said. ‘And that’s deliberately disconcerting.’
Pill ingredients detected at Groovin the Moo included paint, milk powder and artificial sweetener, as well as two pills deemed to be lethal. But there was another shock in store for festival-goers getting their pills tested – 50% of samples contained no identifiable psychoactive whatsoever.
‘Millennials care about their health; they also care deeply about not being ripped off,’ Dr Caldicott said.
The trial was also able to disprove other concerns Dr Caldicott often heard expressed against pill testing, such as that even if pills were found to be unsafe, punters would simply take them anyway.
‘We know that’s not true for a fact, because we watched people discard them,’ he said.
The trial also attracted more traffic than Dr Caldicott and his colleagues expected.
‘We ran a book beforehand as to how many we would see, and I thought we would get 36,’ he said. ‘Actually, we got 85 in number of substances tested.
‘But, perhaps more importantly, we had 128 people come in contact with our drug and alcohol experts.’
Dr Caldicott believes this type of turnout shows measures like pill testing can expand the reach of drug and alcohol experts to a wider population.
‘There is an assumption that drug and alcohol experts are dealing with all the users in Australia, but the vast majority of young drug consumers have never been in contact with the law or with healthcare professionals. They are essentially, to all forms of monitoring, quite invisible,’ he said. ‘We have no idea who they are, what they do, what motivates them.
‘So this is 128 young people whose thought processes and decision-making, we were able to influence.’
Dr Caldicott is hopeful that the trial will lead to greater adoption of pill testing at festivals throughout Australia, but intends to continue his work, regardless.
‘We are going to continue our expertise and we are going to get even better tech in next time,’ he said. ‘We are going to do what we can to provide the very safest music festivals in Australia, and if people want to join us in that journey, that would be awesome.’
Dr Hester Wilson wholeheartedly agrees with that goal of safety and harm-minimisation.
‘It’s our young people, our friends, our families who are choosing to be intoxicated,’ she said. ‘Many people in our community do, whether it’s on legal or illegal substances. It is a part of our society.
‘From my point of view, if a few more people use and use safely and don’t die, I’m okay with that.
‘I much prefer people to be okay.’

harm-minimisation harm-reduction illicit-drugs pill-testing

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