The pill testing debate has amped up for another year. Festivals are being cancelled (Mountain Sounds and Psyfari, we’re looking at you) and rallies are being organised.

Everyone has an opinion, from politicians to medical experts, festival organisers, your mates and even your mum.

So, we thought it was about time we gave you an article on it–especially with another pill testing trial set to go ahead at this year’s Canberra Groovin’ the Moo.

We want to start off with a disclaimer: Year13 isn’t here promoting taking illicit drugs. Let’s make that super clear.

We’re also not here to tell you what the right or wrong answer is. Things are rarely black and white and at Year13 we want to empower you to make informed decisions about whatever choices you’re making.

We hope that by reading this (and maybe tagging your friends in the comments or getting your mum to have a read) you’ll have the information to make up your own mind about how you feel about it all. We’ve tried to make it as easy to read as possible (we know you’re on your phone and can’t be fucked reading essays–you get enough of them at school). But, this will be packed with stats and fact checked statements because we want you getting the best info possible.

The reality is that people are (and always have) been experimenting with drugs–43% of Australians 14 years or over have used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime and Triple J’s Census for Young People showed that 55% of respondents had taken drugs into a music festival.

So, here’s the facts.

How does pill testing work?

Based on what went down last year at Groovin’ the Moo Canberra, here’s how pill testing works.

A tent is set up in the medical area of the festival (this is super important because pill testing is a medical intervention–not a form of quality assurance) and on arrival, people are asked to hand over their phone to prevent anyone taking photos. Participants are given a document outlining how the test doesn’t ensure the quality of a drug and that the ultimate way to avoid getting hurt by drugs is to not use them at all.

Once inside, the actual testing starts, right in front of the participant (who is anonymous) and the whole process takes less than 30 minutes.

Here’s the rest of the process:

  • A laser is shot into a sample of the drugs. The reflection of this laser contains information about the substance, which is compared to a database of nearly 30,000 drugs
  • There is then a three-step classification system: white, yellow and red (none of which are considered ‘safe’)
  • White = the result comes back containing what is expected
  • Yellow = the analysis contains something other than expected
  • Red = indicated the presence of a drug considered to be significantly dangerous or a substance that is unable to be identified
  • After the test, participants are given a wristband or card with a number on it, which matches their drug analysis and can provide information to medical officers if something does go wrong
  • At the end, no drug is given back to the person. Regardless of whether a person is handing over a scraping, an entire pill or a whole bag of them–once they’re handed over to be tested they’re destroyed by the medical professionals

An important thing to remember is that pill testing isn’t designed to stop overdoses by telling people that ‘this number of drugs will kill you while if you take this amount you’ll be safe’. Instead, it’s a final safety net for people who are intending to take drugs to be informed on the dangers of them and potentially persuaded to not take them at all.

This process has additional benefits in that it can capture long term data about substances present on the drug scene and creates the potential for an early warning system.

An example of this in action was in Europe in 2015, when a batch of pills contained a more toxic ingredient than MDMA. In the Netherlands and Belgium, this led to mass media warning campaigns as well as health professionals being informed. However, in the UK, where there was no testing system at the time, the same pills caused the death of four people.

Another benefit is that pill testing tents also give an opportunity for support and education beyond the actual testing; drug services are given access to a population that is often hard to reach.

When pill testing doesn’t work

Pill testing is unable to identify a substance if it hasn’t already been classified in the database. Pills also aren’t all the same and the substances aren’t evenly distributed like they would be when you pick up a packet of Panadol from Woolies. This means if someone were to hand over a tiny scraping from a pill or even one pill from a bag they were sold by their dealer, the test results aren’t necessarily reflective of the entire batch.

In the case of unidentifiable substances, these samples are classified as red–immediately indicating a serious problem.

Does pill testing encourage people to take more drugs?

Research says that pill testing does not encourage more drug use.

  • In a trial at Canberra’s Groovin’ the Moo in 2018, “40% of festival-goers who had their pills tested indicated they would either stop using illicit drugs all together or change their drug taking behaviour.”
  • Research from Austria shows 50% of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn friends in case of negative results.
  • 2017 research commissioned by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction highlights the prevalence of drug use does not seem to be higher in countries that have drug-checking systems in place
  • In a UK trial, “one in five substances tested was not what people expected (was not as sold or acquired) and, among people mis-sold substances, two thirds chose to hand over further substances to be destroyed.”

How do we fund pill testing?

There are a few potential ways that have been suggested to fund pill testing. One is from the government, as a part of the harm minimisation pillar of Australia’s Drug Strategy–a similar funding model that safe injecting rooms already have.

Some argue that the costs of pill testing would be offset by savings in law enforcement and the costs associated with overdoses. Or that not-for-profit, festival organisers or punters themselves could foot the bill.

Another way to potentially find funding for pill testing is to reassess the effectiveness and funding allocated to other drug reduction methods, such as sniffer dogs. A 2006 report found that illicit drugs were found in only about one out of every four indications. In 2018, the data shows that 63% of searches following an indication by a sniffer dog found no drugs and figures provided to the NSW parliament reveal that police have spent an average of $9,420,416.57 per year on the cost of maintaining the police detection dog unit from 2011 to 2016.

A plan published late last year involved opening 18 pill testing services across Australia at a cost of $16M over four years and has been costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO).

What obligation does the government have to help people who are deliberately breaking the law?

The government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens–this is the purpose behind the current ‘war on drugs’. Drugs are considered unsafe, we want people to stop consuming them and so, we implement strategies to do this.

Safe injecting rooms are an example of a successful harm reduction strategy implemented by governments in the past. While it’s acknowledged that injecting drugs is not considered safe, injecting rooms allow for a clean environment where people can inject drugs, access emergency care and obtain clean equipment. It also offers pathways into rehab and treatment, reducing the health burden from infections such as HIV and doesn’t increase the number of people using intravenous methods to inject drugs.

Who will be responsible if a young person decides to take drugs after having a pill tested?

Pill testers are not liable for people acting against medical advice given by medical professionals.

The tested drugs are not returned to the individual (they’re destroyed after being tested) and there is never a point where people are told their drugs are safe to consume.

If the individual chooses to break the law and take pills, regardless of whether they’ve been to the medical tent and participated in drug testing, the responsibility is ultimately on them.

Will police target pill testing areas? How can pill testing work when the drug is still illegal?

In the case of safe injecting rooms in NSW, the law was slightly altered so that the centres, or people using them, weren’t targeted by police.

In the case of pill testing, police discretion can be used before considering legislative change. At the Groovin’ the Moo trial, agreements were made with police not to target the medical tent or the people going in and out of it. Since it’s a medical intervention, confidentiality and anonymity was agreed and upon entry, it wasn’t possible to tell from outside the tent whether people were going inside for general medical help or pill testing.

So, what should we do?

Here’s where we can’t give you any opinions on behalf of Year13.

There are arguments for and against pill testing. There’s no single solution and you should always do your own research so you’re as educated as possible and can make your own informed decisions.

If you do want advice from us, it’s this–get the facts and look out for your mates.

Festivals are the epitome of being an Aussie teenager. At Year13 we reckon there’s few things in life that are better than getting sweaty and moshing at a festival. Everything from losing your mates and not being able to message them thanks to shitty reception in the paddock you’re partying in, falling in love with someone you’ve known for approximately an hour, covering yourself in glitter that doesn’t come out for weeks, trashing your best pair of overalls and Connies and hearing your favourite artists performing right in front of you makes for a pretty bloody good time.

And, the best part is being able to go home at the end of it and start planning for your next festival experience.

So, drink water, wear sunscreen and look after your mates. Don’t go hectic during pres, make sure you eat, organise a safe lift home and again, drink some damn water. Most of all, if something seems suss or you get that feeling in your gut that something bad is about to happen–get help and get it quickly.