Young Australians have launched a campaign calling on politicians to introduce pill testing in a bid to prevent drug overdose.
The first national campaign of its kind, #BeHeardNotHarmed was launched last month at Melbourne nightclub Revolver by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Australia’s youth drug law reform organisation.
With Australians being the highest consumers of ecstasy, coordinator of Harm Victoria’s Dancewize program Stephanie Tzanetis says it is clear that Australia’s punitive approach to drug use is not working. While Dancewize does not condone drug use, it also doesn’t condemn it, and says pill testing is all about helping to minimise the risk.
“The reality is, Australia has one of the, if not the, largest illicit drug-taking community in the world. What we are wanting to do is to take a pragmatic approach to try to give people balanced information about the risks involved, and try to get people to modify their behaviour, even just slightly, so they’re less likely to run into harm,” Ms Tzanetis told Neos Kosmos.
According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey last published in 2017, about 8.5 million Australians aged 14 or older had used an illicit drug in their lifetime, 11.2 per cent having used ecstasy.
Citing the United State’s prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, Ms Tzanetis says evidence shows a zero tolerance approach often has the opposite effect, instead strengthening criminal networks, with consumers less likely to access health services.
George Hatzimanolis, Manager for Youth and Family Services at Odyssey House Victoria, says the conversation around pill testing is long overdue.
While some opponents of pill testing have raised concerns it may inadvertently give people the green light to try drugs, which could lead to experimentation with heavier drugs, leading to more instances of drug abuse, Mr Hatzimanolis disagrees.
Having worked with people suffering from drug addictions for 17 years, he says it is important to identify the type of drug user at the centre of the conversation.
“Most young people that use drugs at festivals are what we call ‘recreational drug users’. They’re not your stereotypical drug user that the media portrays. These young people, most of them are still living at home with parents, are usually uni students, or have full-time employment, and they use maybe monthly, fortnightly, and or only at festivals,” he explains.
“Most would save their money, buy a pill or two, put those in their pocket, and walk towards the festival. Usually there are police dogs that are present, which frightens a lot of people. The logical thing to do I guess is to dispose of your drugs … but if they’re pills, they just swallow the whole lot. So when you look at the issue, it’s about minimising risk.”
While Mr Hatzimanolis agrees with pill testing, he says other services need to be offered alongside, including counsellors and educators, as well as giving out pamphlets with information and even a wrist band with a phone number to call in case of an emergency.
The type of pill testing being advocated for in Australia includes GC-MS technology. It can give a rather definitive answer as to what the compounds are, so long as they are not less than five per cent, Ms Tzanetis explains.
Despite this however, pill testing is by no means a guarantee that the user will experience no harm, as there are a number of individual factors to consider. They include a person’s physiology and psychology at the time of use, as well as the general setting and even the temperature on the day – risks increase once temperatures hit 30 degrees celsius and above.
“The thing that we don’t ever want to do when we’re delivering a pill testing service, is give some kind of guarantee,” says Ms Tzanetis.
“The safest way not to experience drug related harm is not to use a drug. But the reality is a lot of people are using drugs, so we want to respond to the reality of the situation rather than simply continuing to say ‘Don’t use drugs’. So there’s always a disclaimer that there will be a risk.”
She says the most important thing about the pill testing service is actually having face-to-face contact with people.
“It’s like a tool of engagement to be able to go to someone and say ‘Well you think you have this in front of you, and the person that provided it for you might genuinely believe that’s what they gave you. But did you know that it also contains something like cement? Or something that’s really high risk?’ And so the results are surprising.
“If we were to simply say ‘Don’t do drugs’, you lose someone; they’re not willing to listen because their experiences and the experiences of their friends are proving differently – most of the time they are alright, but really they’re taking a risk, and we want to reduce the instances of harm.”
Pill testing has been successfully used abroad for years. It was first introduced as a government sanctioned initiative in The Netherlands, where it has been running for almost 30 years, while Belgium recently reached 20 years of drug testing. Today there are 11 different countries in the EU, as well as the UK, Canada, parts of the USA and New Zealand.
Australia has so far had two pill testing trials at music festivals, both of which have shown the benefits.
The Greens have gotten behind the campaign, seeing the matter as a health issue and a means to save lives, with the Liberals and Labor party not yet fully on board.
So what will be the outcome if Australia doesn’t get on board, and continue to take the approach it is currently?
Ms Tzanetis says we need only look to the opioid crisis currently unfolding in North America, where the death toll from opioids far exceeds the road toll; of 70,200 overdose deaths in 2017, 47,600 involved opioids.
“That has been created because of novel psychoactive substances like opioid analogues that are very strong, and they’re adulterating the entire illicit drug market,” she explains.
The Penington Institute released a report last month, revealing that in Australia the rate of preventable drug overdoses has been increasing steadily over the last 10 years.
“So the more money we’re throwing at taking a zero tolerance approach and trying to stop everyone from using drugs, it hasn’t been working – in fact it does the opposite to what you intend. So you may completely disagree with people using drugs at all, but we can all agree that we want to avoid drug-related harm and deaths. What we want to do is what actually works, and it might seem counterintuitive for some people if they’re not familiar with harm reduction strategies, but when you actually give people credible information that is balanced about the risks, they’re more likely to modify their behaviour in a way that they’re less likely to experience harm. And that’s what pill testing does.”