Will you let me know if it will be ‘safe’ to use the pills/drugs I bring for testing?

Sorry, but that is something we will not do.

It would not be an intellectually or medically honest position for us to take. Taking drugs- even pharmaceutical drugs- can be a risky business, and it’s not really possible for us to advise you that products manufactured on the black market are ever ‘safe’.

So we’ll never tell anyone that their drugs are ‘safe’, or that they are ‘good’, or that they’re ‘pure’- we’ll just try to tell you what is in them, and what choices you might consider making, to make it less likely that you’ll need the services of the hospital emergency department.

What happens if the testers call a pill/drugs ‘safe’, and the consumer goes on to have a bad reaction? Won’t the testers be prosecuted?

As we’ve already mentioned, we never call anything that we test ‘safe’ (see above).

Even low doses of many drugs including ‘ecstasy’ could still have an adverse effect on a consumer, given the right / wrong set of circumstances.

Furthermore, we start all of our conversations with potential consumers with a frank discussion about how they can avoid being harmed by drugs. In that discussion, everyone- without exception- is advised that if they want to be 100% certain of avoiding any harms associated with drugs, they’d be better off not taking any drugs. Like it or not, and for a range of reasons, taking drugs is a risky business.

We are an evidence based harm reduction service that like many other harm reduction services (such as needle and syringe programs) are working to help keep people safe. Our legal advice is very clear that prosecutions against such services would be very difficult to sustain given our objectives and protocols. We will give sound advice and information but in the end it is the consumer that makes the final decision.

Aren’t the people running the pill testing facility breaking the law?

Our legal advice is that the system and protocols that we have designed are highly unlikely to sustain any legal problems – one of the many reasons why a ‘home-grown’ system, evolved to suit local conditions, works, where others might not.. All testing and handling of products is conducted by professional, licensed analytical chemists, with an expertise in handling and processing illicit products.

Of course, most of our opponents already know this. Indeed, the Courts and Legal Services of the NSW Police Service, as long ago as 2001, advised that those conducting pill testing in the manner that we do are in all likelihood not breaking any laws, and would be very difficult to prosecute.

Doesn't pill-testing makes it MORE likely that people will take drugs- at least not knowing what’s in them, leaves them with the fear of becoming unwell, or worse?

Contrary to the opinion of many conservative commentators, young Australians can be pretty sensible when they are presented with information that they believe, and know that they can trust. Part of the problem in Australia right now is that young people are ignoring advice that they see to be unsubstantiated and morally driven. Providing a pill testing service serves to reverse that opinion, and re-engage a demographic that regards current messaging as not being credible.

Let’s remember that we are dealing with a group of people who are attending a music festival in possession of drugs that they already have the intent of consuming. In the absence of any intervention – our presence won’t make it any more likely. The idea that most people, when provided with information about the content of their drugs, will ignore that information, regardless of its nature, greatly underestimates the inclination of this generation to preserve their health. We may not be able to stop all consumers from taking their drugs, but we can certainly alter ‘how’ they take their drugs (taking fewer drugs, mixing fewer drugs…) in such a way as to avoid them coming to harm.

In addition, ‘fear-based’ health policy has little credence today. We have a far better idea of what actually works these days, and that’s a collaborative approach with the target population, providing them with information that is context specific to them, to allow them to make their own decisions.

Which is exactly what we do.

Isn't pill testing is just quality assurance for drug dealers?

No it is not. ‘Drug-dealers’ (what-ever they are) HATE pill testing.

Far from providing quality assurance, it shows potential consumers- in front of their eyes, and in real time, the unreliability and variability of the modern market. Drug dealers selling toxic and dangerous products are quickly exposed thereby reducing the likelihood that you or someone you know will buy a dangerous pill.

Won't the police arrest me as soon as I leave your pill testing area?

Never, where the Pill Testing Australia group is operating. We only work in jurisdictions where law-enforcement understand what we are doing – providing a harm reduction service to festival goers concerning their use of drugs. That doesn’t mean that the law enforcement agencies at festivals we attend won’t arrest you for drug possession- they just understand that we are providing a medical service, which requires a degree of patient confidentiality. Our services will always be located within the medical precinct, which police will not attend unless specifically requested by medical professionals, usually as a consequence of a threat to medical personnel.

Doesn't pill testing send the ‘wrong message’ on drugs to young people?

This is generally the last argument of opponents, when all the other have already been refuted. What’s the ‘right message’?

Is what we’re doing in Australia, right now, adhering to ‘the right message’? Is the right message one which allows young Australians to die in a vacuum of sensible information, in the vain hope that their deaths might serve as some sort of horrific and cruel lessons that drugs are bad

Here at Pill Testing Australia, we have an alternative message, one that has the weight of evidence and compassion behind it.

Our Message is that we will do everything that we can to ensure that adventurous young Australians, attending events in a vibrant Australian festival environment, get home to their loved ones. Because you can’t have a discussion with people about lifestyle choices unless first and foremost, you keep them alive.

Does it cost anything to have my pills/drugs tested?

No – not under the system under which we operate. Other systems overseas charge for their services, but we have committed to an ethical principle (The Trans-Tasman Charter- check it out here), committing to never charging people for trying to look after their health

Is the service confidential?

Definitely- we consider the process a medical intervention, and treat our patrons as if they were patients (although we are trying terribly hard to stop them becoming patients!) It’s for this reason that we don’t allow the photography of patrons, or even mobile phones, in the area where we do the testing. If you get your drugs tested, you’ll be assigned an untraceable study number, just in case you become unwell, and other medical professionals want to get in touch with us to find out what your test revealed. But that is not traceable to your name, just your test result.

What information do you give me about the pills/drugs if I get them tested?

At the moment, using the technology that we have chosen for Australia, we can tell what the most likely main ingredient is, and if they are present in sufficient quantities, what else might be there. Our technology is very good, and has been chosen for its sensitivity, how robust it is, and how much information we can obtain while minimising contact with the products we are analysing. With support, we’ll soon be able to tell you a lot more!

What’s the difference between ‘pill testing’ and ‘drug checking’?

There is no difference. As a contaminated ‘ecstasy’ market emerged in the 1990s, consumers in Europe looked to ways to avoid being poisoned, and ‘pill testing’ was born. Since then, a number of terms have emerged for the process, including ‘drug checking’ and ‘safety testing’. Proponents of the term ‘drug checking’ argue that we test powders, capsules, lotions and potions, and that the term ‘pill testing’ doesn’t cover the breadth of what we do. We completely agree in principle, but outside of academic circles, the term ‘drug checking’ in Australia. We think that the term ‘safety testing’, in Australia, implies that we can render drug consumption ‘safe’ which, for reasons we’ve discussed, we don’t think any system can do.

So we’ve gone with the term that most Australians know and understand – ‘pill testing’. In a recent review of the terms used by the public and in the media, ‘pill testing’ is clearly preferred over ‘drug checking’. It’s not perfect, but hey- we live in an imperfect world!

Why not just do DIY testing with reagent tests?

Reagent tests are ‘presumptive tests’, that change colour according to the chemical groups on any given chemical. The have exotic eponymous names, like ‘marquis’ ‘Mandelin’ referring to the 19th century chemists who first described them. They’re still used today by law enforcement agencies for screening suspicious powders- they are very low tech, and low cost.

20 years ago, they probably weren’t an awful option. They’re still used by some organisations as a preliminary screen for pill testing, but almost never as a standalone. There are far more drugs out there than there were 20 years ago, and the technology available to analyse them has become cheaper, smaller and more widely available. And we are great believers in analyses being performed by those other than consumers, especially consumers attempting to conduct an analysis in less than ideal ambient conditions, and possibly under the influence of other products.

Don’t get us wrong- we support the idea that young people want to test their own drugs- we just don’t want them to be lulled into the sense that DIY reagent testing is in anyway as reliable as the sort or technology we have at our disposal.

What substances can I test? Not just pills; powder, crystal, caps, liquid etc

If you are going to consume it, we can probably test it.

What have results have you found in the past?

At our first trial in Canberra 2018, we found:

  • 72% of patrons brought in substances in capsules; 13% loose crystal, 9% pills and 6% powder
  • 84% of drugs were expected to contain MDMA, but only 51% did – the rest made up of mostly fillers/cutting agents (20%) that had no psychoactive agents in them, and other drugs and substances, such as antihistamine, foodstuff and toothpaste.
  • A smaller amount of samples was expected to be other drugs (cocaine, ketamine etc) and tested positive for these substances. We also found 2 potentially dangerous samples.

There was only 43% agreement between what our patrons were expecting, and what our results found them to be – which means most people’s drugs did not contain what they expected them to contain. This is a much lower proportion of agreement than in other countries internationally, such as the UK.

35% of our patrons reported to us that they would change their use patterns (by either not using their drugs, or using less of them), and 7% were undecided when leaving our service.

Our patrons ranged from age 15-47, 2/3 of them identified as male, and 93% of our patrons told us this was not the first time they had used illegal drugs, indicating that setting up our service did not encourage people to take drugs.

How long does it take to test?

Depending on how busy we are, the testing process doesn’t take long at all. Once you enter the service, we take you through a consent process, ask you a few questions on your demographics and the drugs you’re testing, then we hand over to the chemists. They then test your sample, our medical advisor advises you of the results, and you can take a few minutes to sit down and chat about with our harm reduction workers. You can stay and chat for as long as you’d like to, otherwise the testing process itself takes about 15 minutes.

Doesn’t the medical profession frown on pill testing?

Not at all.

As long ago as November 2005, The Australian Medical Association passed a resolution in support of pill testing.

If you are such big advocates of pill testing, why not just go ‘rogue’ and do it without permissions in jurisdictions that are disinclined to endorse it?

In some parts of the world, there are groups that have taken this approach, and we understand it. However, we are strong advocates for what we are doing and believe that it’s important to argue our case and bring our critics with us. We also believe that if we are going to provide a contribution to the global movement to make the dangerous environment of illicit drugs a health issue, we need to do it openly, with oversight and accountability.

The other element is the high cost of our equipment. Were it to be seized in the context of ‘unsanctioned’ testing – which in some jurisdictions in Australia is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility – it could easily be impounded. As our work is funded by donations and the voluntary contributions of PTA members, that would be a significant problem.

What is ‘open science’, and why do you make such a big deal of it?

Open Science is growing movement, where scientists and doctors share all of their methodology & data, freely, because they believe it is in the interest of wider society.

Increasingly, important research finds itself behind ‘pay-walls’ or held by academics for their advantage, or until such time as when it can be put behind a pay-wall. We will release testing results to all of our collaborators, and then freely, to public as a way of thanking them for the trust that they have put on us. An example of this has been the release of our pilot report, available for everyone to see at Pill-Testing-Pilot-ACT-June-2018-Final-Report.pdf

So there’ll be no limited releases, no denial of requests to share slides from presentations, no requests for money in exchange for data, no watermarks – our data will be your data, because it’s important.

What is ‘front-of-house’ testing, and why is it important?

In the beginning, there was ‘pill testing’- just ‘pill testing’. Patrons provided a product for analysis, and the result that was obtained was always coupled with the opportunity to consult with health care professionals. While the analytical equipment and the nature of any new drugs are often the stars of the media circus that chases pill testing around Australia, it is this second interaction, the less glamorous arm of the process, that we think might even be the most important and unique benefit of ‘proper pill testing‘.

More recently, in jurisdictions where front-of-house testing has not been possible, on-site testing has been conducted without that direct feedback to patrons. This misses this vital component that adds so much value to the to the consumer, and serves as an excellent modality of reducing harm.

The ACT Government adopted front-of-house pill testing at a music festival, and not some proxy service for law enforcement or other agencies, without that high value intervention, and showed that it is possible to collaborate with law enforcement and provide the best possible service to patrons of music festivals. If law enforcement, or groups working for them, want to conduct ‘back of house’ pill testing behind the scenes, without that face-to-face interaction, they are welcome to do so – we just don’t see it as being the intervention that we want to provide, and don’t see why a sub-standard service should be accepted as the bar to which any providers of healthcare in Australia should aspire.

Can you tell me about pill testing services overseas?

Australia is a relative new comer to the growing number of countries providing pill testing around the world. Some make more noise about it than others, but many people have been quietly getting on with business since the 1990s. They include DIMS in The Netherlands, Checkit! in Austria, and Energy Control in Spain.

A wide variety of models exist, including testing away from the festival environment, such as DIMS, or even a mail-in version in Wales called WEDINOS

There’s a census out there, for anyone interested in how the service is expanding globally!

Please see our section on [‘The History of Pill Testing’] for more information.

Can I donate to your efforts?

Yes you can!

At the moment pill testing is being delivered pro bono by committed health care professionals and concerned NGOs. We would love to roll out our Australian system, which was specifically designed for Australian consumers, more widely. We can provide the time, the passion and over 2 decades worth of experience in establishing the first pilot in Australia. If you want to be part of the only system delivering pill testing in Australia, you can make a tax-deductible contribution – click here