The recent drug-related death of a young woman in Australia, combined with news of increasing MDMA purity levels in the UK highlight the need for pill and drug testing to be more widespread at festivals and club venues to reduce the harms associated with drug use.
In a recent article for The Conversation, Professor Alison Ritter, a drug policy specialist at UNSW Australia, outlined six reasons why Australia should pursue a harm minimization strategy of testing pills and other party drugs in order to ensure people know what they are taking is safe. Among the arguments put forward are that such initiatives have been shown to impact on the black market — ensuring that dangerous substances are taken off following warnings to users — and had a positive effect on users’ consumption habits in some cases. Furthermore, it increases our understanding about exactly what substances are on the drug scene.
Ritter’s proposal couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time, published in the immediate aftermath of the death of a 19-year-old girl at a festival in Australia from a suspected ecstasy overdose. As Ritter states:
Of course, critics will argue the [pill testing] measure will “send the wrong message”. But the messages we’re currently sending are that we don’t want informed consumers and we don’t want to reduce harm from illicit drug use.
Pill testing is not a particularly novel idea, having been rolled out through a number of local initiatives across European countries including Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium. Additionally, there are similar ways of drug checking in the USA, Canada and Colombia. However, by no means is the practice widespread despite its obvious benefits of harm minimization.
In Amsterdam, some form of drug checking scheme has been around since the early 1990s, with The Independent reporting in 1995 on the organization “Safe House” which had been running since the late 1980s, testing pills for party-goers on site at events. Today there seems to be less of a presence actually at events but people can still send drugs off for analysis in the Netherlands, with the results available within 2 weeks.
Boom Festival in Portugal is a more recent example of this form of risk management. Kosmicare has been at Boom since 2002 providing a similar service of advice on the dangers of drug taking and drug checking facilities. These include harm reduction techniques, risk minimization, support during bad or intense experiences, facilitation work, and a team of 30 multi-lingual volunteers including psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health assistants and medics. So far there has never been a report of a drug-related death at the festival.
As far as the possibilities for anything like this in the UK, most efforts have been restricted to amnesty bins, a scheme seen at festivals and one trialed at Manchester’s Warehouse Project following the drug-related death of a man in September 2013. Unlike on the spot pill testing, amnesty drugs means those deposited in a designated bin, or confiscated by security. In the case of the Warehouse Project, these are subsequently tested, and if a worrying substance is found, warnings are put out on social media and on screens at the venue for potential users.
As a result of testing conducted on amnestied drugs from UK festivals this summer, experts such as Professor Fiona Measham have discovered that the purity of MDMA in the country has risen threefold compared to a few years ago, something which may explain the uptick in ecstasy overdoses between 2010 and 2013, reported The Guardian. Evidence like this arguably makes the case for on the spot testing and warnings even stronger.
Of course, as Professor Ritter notes, implementing such initiatives is by no means a panacea; people will continue to take drugs without seeking out advice on what they are, or indeed how best to take them. However, putting in place measures — providing information on purity levels, drug composition, dose recommendations — that can help people significantly mitigate the harms associated with use can only be beneficial. Recreational drug taking is a part of the club and festival scene, a fact that isn’t about to change anytime soon.