Andrew Groves holding a purple pill against a purple background.

Pill testing saves lives

Pill testing is one of a range of harm reduction strategies that will help stop overdoses and deaths at clubs and music festivals.

Dr Andrew Groves, lecturer in Criminology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, specialises in research on alcohol and other drug use, as well as related drug policies.

In a recent publication in Harm Reduction Journal, he recommended the inclusion of pill testing into Australia’s harm minimisation strategy.

“The reality is that drug use occurs at music festivals regardless of the risks and it’s important to use the practices we know work to ensure that young people do not come to harm as a result of this risky behaviour,” says Groves.

The link between drugs and music festivals is well established, with several recent overdoses in Australia underlining this as a social and political issue.

An image taken from the audience of Flume's concert in Sydney.

A feature of the pill testing debate relates to what is known about these dangerous substances and how we can learn more.

Australia’s first pill testing trial at Canberra’s 2018 Groovin the Moo festival found that people discarded pills that contained lethal additives. Pills were found to contain ingredients such as rat poison, paint and N-Ethylpentylone, a lethal drug that has caused overdoses globally.

Knowledge of these ‘adulterants’ is valuable for users in terms of consumption practices, but also for healthcare and support workers, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and policymakers.

Pill testing informs police about what is on the market, distribution networks, and precursor chemicals coming into Australia.

Hospitals can similarly be prepared for overdoses and illnesses if they know the levels and types of drugs that are in the community, while empirical data can improve academic research and drug prevention planning.

“Pill testing should be part of a broad harm reduction strategy at festivals, one that includes medical assistance, chill-out tents, and free water.

“These are all intended to ensure the safety of young people, knowing that they will take drugs at these events regardless of law enforcement efforts to stop them,” says Groves.

A table full of different coloured pills.

However, given the legacy of punitive policymaking and zero tolerance policing in Australia, combined with the moral subtexts of the (failed) ‘war on drugs’, demonisation of users and substantial misinformation about pill testing, the way forward is complicated.

“One of the criticisms of pill testing is that it encourages young people to use drugs, or that it is seen as a “green light” regarding the safety of the pills.

“That is not the case.

“Testing analyses pill contents so the potential user can make an informed decision about consuming the drug.

“Drug use is inherently social and cultural, so tackling drug use from a purely criminal justice and closing down festivals won’t stop young people from taking drugs, but will push drug use into areas where it is more difficult to monitor,” says Groves.

“Data from Denmark and Switzerland show us that pill testing does work to minimise harm. When given feedback that pills contained unexpected ingredients, around two-thirds of people said they would not take the substance.”

This parallels recent behaviour at Australia’s Groovin the Moo festival.

Pill testing also allows health and support workers to establish contact and provide advice to young people, who generally don’t seek support from other services.

Unlike stereotypical depictions of people who use drugs at festivals, these are otherwise balanced, reasonable and intelligent members of the community.

Two young men sitting on a couch having a conversation.

“These young people may be risk taking, but they are also rational so it is important to start a conversation with them about staying safe and reducing harm when they are making decisions about drugs.

“The pill testing tent is a place where these conversations can happen without fear of the criminal justice system,” says Groves.

“We need to rethink the responses to illicit drugs and what “harm” is in the contexts of music festivals.

“We know that pill testing works to reduce harm – even a few pills thrown away is a positive result – but we need more evidence to encourage policy reform so that pill testing becomes an accepted tool in the harm reduction toolkit.

“In the present environment, trying to survey young people at a festival would be met with fear or reluctance,” says Groves.

Pill testing is not a ‘silver bullet’ – it is not intended to be – but it can save lives.

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