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An expert answers all your questions about pill-testing in Australia

Unless you’ve been hiding under the bed this past week, you’ll have noticed that pill-testing has been all over the headlines.

Influential ABC current affairs show Four Corners recently ran a story that strongly criticised the government’s hardline policy against pill-testing. Then, fed up with government inaction, a group of medical and legal experts – including toxicologist Dr David Caldicott, drug law reform specialist Dr Alex Wodak and advocacy organisation Unharm – announced they were starting a drug-checking program at Australian festivals whether the police like it or not.

The NSW government was not best pleased, with the Premier and Deputy Premier claiming that pill-testing “will not happen” and threatening to arrest the experts running the trial. The only way to reduce harm at festivals, Premier Mike Baird said, was abstinence: “Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine.”

But the experts behind pill-testing say that there’s nothing radical about the idea, and very similar harm reduction programs are already being run across the country. We spoke to Unharm director Will Tregoning to find out how likely it is that we’ll have pill-testing at festivals this year, and exactly how the service will work.

How can we get pill-testing services at festivals without police raids?

The pill-testing experts have said that they’re prepared to push ahead with our without government approval. Dr Alex Wodak has experience with this type of civil disobedience: he started Australia’s first needle exchange program in the ’80s despite police threats to arrest him, because he knew that without the service, the country was at risk of a “severe HIV epidemic”.

This time, Tregoning says, they’d much rather do it without confrontation. “We want this to go ahead peacefully and we want police to get behind it. That is our main priority,” Tregoning said. “The best way is with a formal directive from the Premier’s office – from government, essentially – to police not to pursue drug arrests in the vicinity of the service.”

pill-testing-lab

The “formal directive” would place pill-testing services in the same legal grey area as medical injecting rooms and needle exchanges: while police know that the people using them are likely in possession of drugs, they’re directed not to raid them. And if the government instructed police – including the Drug Squad, Dog Squad and Local Area Command – to let the service run at festivals unmolested, there’d be no need for any time-consuming changes to legislation.

The NSW government and police recently requested a briefing document from his organisation Unharm, Treoning said, which outlines what drug-checking is, how similar services operate internationally and what technology is used, along with an evaluation of evidence from the overseas programs and an explanation of how it would work legally in NSW.

“[It’s] something that we already have with the syringe program and the medical cannabis expiation scheme in NSW,” Tregoning said, “so there’s a very clear precedent for how this could operate.”

Who will be running and making decisions for the drug-checking program?

The on-site pill-testing will be run by expert toxicologist Dr David Caldicott and a team of volunteers, Tregoning said, with the support of Unharm and the “experience and expertise” of Dr Alex Wodak. “The critical factor before it goes ahead is: is Dr David Caldicott confident [that there won’t be conflict with police]?” Tregoning said. “And that’s his decision.”

“The equipment tells you all the substances [in your pill] and the quantity of each”

How accurate is the pill-testing equipment?

The Australian trial will be based off two international drug-checking programs in Vienna and Portugal, with plans to use the same “gold-standard” GCMS (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry) equipment used in Vienna. “It gives a very precise analysis of the contents of the pill: what it is – all the substances present – and the quantity of each,” Tregoning said.

How long does it take? And how many people can get their drugs tested in one day/night?

Based off the evidence from the program in Vienna, a single drug-checking service in Australia will be able to return pill-test results in about 20 minutes, which means a turnover of about 100 tests in a night.

“It means you can’t check everybody’s drugs,” Tregoning said. “But if there’s a pill circulating that they find contains a risky substance, they’ll post a warning about it. That’s one of the best things – you can influence the behaviour of a lot of consumers with the results from a relatively small number of tests.”

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