Globally there a wide variety of approaches to pill testing or drug checking as it is sometimes known. In general, the choice of equipment is a balance between three elements – how robust it is, how fast it is, and how accurate it is.
Currently in the ACT, our drug testing is undertaken using the Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) using an ALPHA II machine. In addition to it’s technical appropriateness using FTIR provides pill testers with a level of legal protection as it removes the issue of contact with illicit substances by those conducting the test. As pill testing expands and authorities become more comfortable with the concept more detailed analysis will become possible.
Infrared spectroscopy (IR) is a presumptive test able to quickly identify ingredients by comparing the spectrum of the substances with known spectra in a library/ies.
IR is a highly discriminatory method and Harper, Powell and Pijl (2017:6) conclude that ‘when reference spectra it requires only a very small sample size in the range of milligrams or less. Additionally, samples can be studied in virtually any physical state…’. The World Health Organisation has stated that ‘infrared spectrum is not usually greatly affected by the presence of small quantities of impurities in the substance tested’ (WHO, 1997). Interference from moisture can occur but as the samples were being tested immediately this was regarded as a low risk. Importantly, samples required little preparation, so this eliminates ‘the possibility of sample contamination during sample preparation’ (Monit, 2007).
Test results are assigned to one of three outcomes. ‘Red’ results (drugs associated with increased harm/multiple overdoses/death) and some ‘yellow’ (disparity between result and patron expectation) and ‘white’ results (consistent with patron expectation) are displayed for all patrons, on similarly coloured pieces of paper, pinned to a notice board to alert patrons of what may be circulating.
Patrons are advised of the amnesty bin in which they could discard their drugs should they choose to do so.
Currently, with the technology we use, we can:
- Provide information on the ingredients of the drug presented.
- Provide advice on the predominant ingredient, and some minor ingredients
- Provide general advice on the potential effects and harms of any ingredients identified (done by medical staff and peer counsellors)
- Provide general advice on the reducing the chance of harm in the music festival environment, particularly in the context of illicit drug consumption
- Provide warnings regarding drugs (and ingredients) known to be associated with harm
- Provide warnings regarding drugs (and ingredients) that appear to be novel (unknown) to our very large database of drugs (and ingredients)
- Provide relevant information to festival healthcare personnel in real time
But we cannot:
- Provide exact information on the purity or doses of ingredients within the drugs presented
- Guarantee that we can identify all products, particularly ‘unknown unknowns’
We will not:
- Tell anyone that their drugs are ‘safe’
- Tell anyone that their drugs are ‘good’
- Provide a moral judgement on the behaviour of service users