Pill testing creates a risky illusion
Ill-informed calls to introduce “pill testing” at Australian music festivals, such as the impending the Falls Festival in Tasmania, need to be resisted. Drugs kill and harm. No “ifs”. No “buts”.
Pill testing is in no way a proven way of preventing drug-related deaths. The evidence we have about how pill testing works in practice, both overseas and in Australia, should give policymakers strong reservations.
The UK first began pill testing in 2013 and, with government sanction, it operates at many major music festivals. If the argument that pill testing prevents deaths was correct, we would expect to see a reduction in the number of fatalities since 2013. Instead, the opposite occurred, with ecstasy-related deaths in the UK more than doubling from 43 in 2013 to 92 in 2018.
A study from the Australian National University into a pill-testing trial at a festival in the ACT gives further genuine cause for concern. It unsurprisingly found that testing resulted in a “significant overall rise in patrons” intention to use the tested drug”.
In other words, testing made people more, not less, likely to consume drugs. Pill testing gives a false sense of security and legitimises the use of a highly destructive substance.
Pill testing promotes drug use by changing individuals’ perception of the very real risk involved. By giving the illusion that testing means drugs can somehow be safe, individuals are actually encouraged to take them. But there is no such thing as safe ecstasy use, and to give young Australians any illusion to the contrary is irresponsible.
These concerns have been raised by toxicologists Andrew Leibie and Dr John Lewis, who note that any claim that pill testing increases the safety of illicit drugs is dangerously misleading.
This is because the methods used in pill testing are imprecise. They are poor at detecting mixtures of different substances in a pill, are not able to detect newer varieties of drug, and, crucially, cannot measure the dosage.
Leibie and Lewis make another vital observation that is willfully ignored in the debate — the six individuals who died after taking ecstasy last summer died from its side effects, not because they took contaminated pills. Testing the pills would have only confirmed them as ecstasy.
These shortcomings expose both the danger and uselessness of pill testing.
Policymakers should not do anything to encourage young people to take drugs in the false confidence that they are doing so safely. And this is not to mention the serious long-term health impacts of ecstasy use, or the incidences of injury or death caused indirectly by its consumption (such as car accidents).
When the wellbeing of the next generation is at stake, good intentions in public policy are never good enough.
We should not be seduced by trendy policy ideas that implicitly endorse the use of drugs, by suggesting it can be done safely.
The only proven and guaranteed way to prevent harm from drugs is to not use drugs. We need the strength, courage and conviction of policy-makers to protect our young from the devastating impact of drugs.