We used to have pill testing at festivals – why did it stop?

[Article image by Alexandra Posadzki/The Globe and Mail]

Over the summer of 2015/16, Australia’s dance scene was hit with a string of tragic deaths at festivals from suspected drug overdoses. Dozens of festival-goers were also treated by first aid staff for adverse reactions to drugs, prompting calls for Australia to allow pill-testing services (now known as drug-checking) on-site at festivals and parties, so punters can find out exactly what’s in their drugs before they take them.

Sounds pretty radical, right?

But the reality is it used to happen at festivals and dance events right here in Australia. That’s right – you could take your pill or powder, have an expert run tests on a small amount of it, and 40 minutes later you’d have a detailed analysis of exactly what’s in your drugs, along with advice on what the likely effects will be. Unsurprisingly, when people found out their pills were dodgy, they usually decided to bin them.

The tests were an initiative of Enlighten Harm Reduction, an organisation based in Melbourne, which was set up to inform drug users about what chemicals they were putting in their bodies. Its founder, Johnboy Davidson, was part of the fledgling online drug discussion community Bluelight, before running the Australian Bluelight site and its off-shoot Pill Reports, an internet “database of people recording their experiences” with different drugs.

So why did it stop?

Enlighten Harm Reduction ran on-site drug-checking at festivals and events in Victoria until 2007, when political pressure and a lack of support forced them to abandon it. They initially pitched the idea to other harm reduction organisations, who were too afraid of losing government funding to give it a go. When the use of party drugs exploded around the early 2000s, they decided to work outside the law.

“We were daring the government to arrest us, as a way to call out the hypocrisy and get attention for the issue,” Davidson told inthemix earlier this year. “[We] lobbied government and the media, but we were basically banging our heads against a brick wall; we could only get funding from whoever could donate to us, and that wasn’t going so well.”

Between 2000 and 2005, Enlighten set up stalls at about 40 dance parties in Victoria and South Australia, such as the Enchanted raves. At the height of the operation, Davidson said they were testing between 100 and 200 pills a night using chemical reagents that would give a coloured reaction when added to small amounts of a drug. (See how it works below.)

A decade later, much more sophisticated lab equipment is available for on-site testing – but at a cost of around $50,000 per unit.

Was it effective?

“Absolutely,” Davidson says. While people may still overdose from substances like MDMA, he says drug-checking dramatically reduces the number of overdoses from more lethal adulterants like PMA.

“If you tell someone that a pill contains a dangerous substance, they’re far less likely to take it. The amount of times that people say ‘can you dispose of this, I don’t want to take it anymore’ – that happens a lot. And if that’s literally someone’s life saved, that’s great … There’s nothing more credible than being able to point at a spectrographic chart on a machine and say, ‘that says this pill contains PMA, and this is the Wikipedia page for PMA – see at the very top where it talks about the number of deaths caused by it? Do you still want to take it?’”

Why don’t we have it now?

The problem, Davidson says, is not just a lack of funding and support – drug-checking is also shackled by the law. If a drug-checking expert is in possession of an illegal substance, they can be arrested. “The only way drug-checking can occur in Australia [right now] is either through the law being changed, or organisations working outside of legal reach,” Davidson said. “It just takes the political will, the idea that ‘something has to be done’…

“The trouble is we only ever talk about this issue in summer after someone dies – but people take drugs all year round, and we could be saving people’s lives all year round. We want to see the specialists be able to do their work without the fear of having their careers burnt to the ground.”

“We need some progressive and brave politicians”

Rainbow Serpent Festival joined the calls this week to allow drug-checking at their event. “We need some progressive and brave politicians who recognise the current approach isn’t working and can communicate the benefits of changing strategies to the mainstream Australian population,” festival director Tim Harvey said. “We don’t believe current practices such as sniffer dogs and strip searches will solve this complex problem.”

To allow for pill-testing to occur, Davidson says, wouldn’t necessarily require major changes to the law – harm reduction organisations would just need the de facto support of the Federal government, in the same way that needle exchange programs work because the police ‘look the other way’ and don’t raid them.

“That’s what could happen for drug-checking. It’s been happening in Europe for 20 years,” Davidson said. “With $50,000 for a testing machine I could probably do a lot more direct harm reduction than a $100 million ad campaign that people just sneer at.”