Features

Meet the sensible countries that allow pill-testing

The recent tragic overdoses at festivals around Australia have brought pill-testing back into the headlines, as health experts argue its benefits while police and politicians staunchly declare it will never happen.

But Australia is no stranger to harm reduction policies for drugs like heroin (with safe injecting rooms now the norm), and there are many other countries around the world saving lives at festivals every day with pill-testing programs. Criminologist Miki McLay looked into how pill-testing works in The Netherlands, Austria and Portugal.


Nearly half of all Australians (42%) have tried an illegal drug – according to the most recent figures from the government’s national drugs survey – and more than one in ten has tried ecstasy. Whatever your personal views are on drug use, the fact is that taking MDMA isn’t a niche activity in Australia – we’re the world’s biggest users per capita.

That same 2013 government survey also shows that ecstasy use has been declining since 2007, and the harm caused by ecstasy is a blip on the radar compared to the social and health harms of alcohol and tobacco. But despite the relatively low levels of harm caused by ecstasy, even a single pill-related death is too many, when there are ways that damage can be prevented: through realistic drug education and direct harm reduction like pill testing (or drug-checking), as countries in Europe have been doing for years.

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The Netherlands

There’s been an official pill-testing service in the Netherlands since the early ‘90s, when the government first became worried about the drug’s growing use.

Rather than pouring money into law and order solutions, the Dutch government took the radical approach of launching the official drug-checking service DIMS (Drugs Information and Monitoring System) to answer three key questions: what drugs are out there, what are the trends in drug use, and what are the health risks for those drugs?

The DIMS labs have a permit to handle illegal drugs for the purpose of scientific research – unlike in Australia, where scientists testing drugs can be arrested and charged. The DIMS offices are open to the public, so anyone can bring in samples for testing. They also operate on-site services at parties and festivals around the country, as part of the Safe House Campaign.

Besides on-site drug-checking, the Safe House Campaign also provides information and guidelines to event organisers about safety, first aid, air conditioning, venue capacity and more, and information to punters about high-risk drug use, safe sex and driving under the influence.

And the DIMS testing system works, flagging up bad batches of pills before they can cause serious harm, such as last year’s Superman pills that contained a large dose of the lethal adulterant PMMA.

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The Netherlands put out a national televised warning about the pills; in the UK, where there is no equivalent testing or warning system, four people died from the pills before word got out. Having this kind of information about trends in the availability, purity and use of drugs is also invaluable for policy researchers and advisors to create realistic policies about drug use that actually work long-term.

Austria

The Netherlands is unique as the only country where pill-testing is a part of official harm reduction policies. In other countries, it operates in more of a legal grey area: for example, Austria has the harm reduction initiative ChEck iT!, which offers free and anonymous chemical analysis of drugs at parties. Local police let the service operate without hassling its organisers or users, because they recognise the value of the service (in the same way that police in NSW don’t raid safe injecting rooms).

Besides testing drugs, ChEck iT! also provides information about harm reduction and safe drug use, and the results are encouraging: 58% of the people who have used the on-site pill-testing service said that they wouldn’t have otherwise sought out information about safe drug use – and crucially, most agreed that they would be willing to throwing out potentially harmful substances and warn their friends after getting pill-testing results.

Current affairs program 60 Minutes travelled to The Netherlands and Austria last year to find out about their drug-checking programs – watch the segment below.

Portugal

Portugal is a landmark case study for progressive drug policy, after its decision in 2001 to decriminalise the possession of all drugs for personal use and treat substance use and abuse as a health issue, not a crime issue.

Pill testing is just one small element of this broader approach to harm minimisation: outreach team CHECK!N was founded in 2006, and runs in much the same way as pill-testing programs in the Netherlands and Austria: checking drugs at events, providing information to punters, and compiling data about drug trends.

Overall, Portugal’s shift towards decriminalisation has seen measurable, positive results: while drug use has remained steady or dropped, the number of drug-related deaths has dropped dramatically. Portugal’s lead has been followed by other countries: in Mexico, for example, possession of small amounts of drugs has been legal since 2009, while Ireland recently decided to also decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis, cocaine and heroin, steering problem users away from prison and towards treatment programs.

The examples of Portugal, Austria and The Netherlands prove that pill-testing works, and all it requires is the same shift in thinking that allowed the introduction of injecting rooms in Australia in the ‘90s. With enough public pressure, it’s a shift that could happen in Australia: you can sign a Change.org petition to decriminalise drug-checking in Australia over here.

Miki McLay holds a BA(Hons.) in criminology from Monash University and is a freelance music writer specialising in electronic music and criminal justice.