January 17, 2019
Australia is in the middle of another national debate about pill testing, after the deaths of five young people at music festivals in recent months.
Medical experts and festival organisers have urged government leaders across the country to reconsider their opposition to pill testing and allow drug testing services to operate at music festivals.
So far, various governments haven’t budged.
In the absence of professional, sophisticated pill testing, senior lecturer in addiction at Edith Cowan University, Dr Stephen Bright, has come out and advised people to test their drugs at home, using reagent tests.
“Reagent pill testing isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s rudimentary at best,” he told Hack.
“But I’d rather someone testing their drugs than blindly swallowing a pill.”
So without specialist drug checking services, are more people turning to DIY tests? And is that a good idea?
Professional pill testing v amateur
When done professionally, pill testing is carried out by a team of specialists who run state-of-the-art spectrometer tests to determine what substances are in someone’s drugs.
As it stands, the ACT is the only state to have approved a pill testing trial, which ran at Groovin the Moo in 2018.
New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia do not support pill testing. The Queensland Government says it’s considering the pill testing trials underway in Canberra.
DIY drug testing kits are sold legally in Australia, starting at $8 for a single test, (although the drugs you might test with the kit would remain illegal).
The tests are what’s known as reagent chemical tests. When a small scraping of drugs is mixed with the chemicals, they change colour according to what substances are found.
There are three common reagent kits that test for different substances, albeit a limited range given how many new psychotropic substances are out there.
Dr Bright advises people to use all three reagent tests and triangulate the results to get a clearer idea of what their drugs contain.
“Generally with reagent testing, people will use one, hopefully two or three reagents to get an idea of what might be in the drug they’re taking,” Dr Bright said.
“Reagent testing is limited… because a number of different chemicals will change the same colour.
“By using multiple tests you can start to dig down to what the actual chemical is that’s in it.”
However, Dr Bright warns that the test will not pick up all adulterants – that is, just because the results says your pill contains MDMA, for example, doesn’t guarantee it hasn’t been laced with another – possibly lethal – substance.
“You may test with the first reagent and it tests purple, that indicates MDMA. That may indicate MDMA but it may contain MDMA and an adulterant.
“It’s not evidence that it’s just MDMA in the drug.”
DIY testing getting more popular
In Australia there’s one company selling DIY drug testing – EZ Tests Australia.
One of their directors, Steven Bourk, told Hack he’s seen a steady increase in people buying testing kits since he joined the business in 2003.
They also see a jump in sales after high-profile tragedies like the deaths this summer.
“I’ve definitely noticed increased sales. People get a little scared, but the people purchasing drug testing kits is a drop in the ocean compared to the people taking drugs.”
Steven has also noticed another interesting trend – women opting to test their drugs.
“When we first started doing this business… we never got any women buying these at all. Now it’s probably an equal share of men-to-women.”
He believes the tests can help people make a more informed decision, but concedes the tests aren’t comprehensive.
“Nothing’s ever going to be 100 per cent safe, so they can’t guarantee it’s going to save your life,” he said.
“What it can do is give some knowledge and information about what you’re going to put in your mouth.”
‘Not fit for purpose’
However, emergency room doctor and leading pill-testing advocate Dr David Caldicott doesn’t recommend people take testing into their own hands because of the limitations of reagent testing.
“There may have been a time when reagent testing was reliable… but me and a lot of colleagues think that in the current market it’s not fit-for-purpose,” he told Hack.
He says reagent testing won’t pick up too many dangerous substances in the illicit drug market.
“This issue is that MDMA can now be tainted with other psychotropics.”
He believes it’s a job for the professionals who have the best equipment.
“All testing for drugs should be done by a qualified chemist who’s not under the influence,” he said.
It’s probably not best done in a tent with a head torch when you’re off your face.
However, he understands why people would be looking for more information about substances they’re ingesting.
“I think anything that makes you pause and think about what you’re taking is a good thing.”
Dr Caldicott and Dr Bright are frustrated the public is not being told what substances the five young people took before they died.
“It would be helpful to know what had caused these deaths,” Dr Bright said.
“That would allow us to tailor some educational information around how to reduce further deaths.”