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What’s happening with pill testing in Australia?

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Pill testing in Australia is a loaded subject, full of conflicting opinions and viewpoints. Here we break down the state of pill testing in Australia.
Pill testing in Australia

Pill testing in Australia is a loaded subject, full of conflicting opinions and viewpoints.

So far, the ACT is the only Australian state or territory with pill testing. It’s in the works for Queensland, but we don’t know exactly when it will begin. 

Before we delve into the years-long, tumultuous pill-testing debate, let’s discuss how it actually works.

The state of pill testing in Australia

Pill testing is a service that allows people to understand what’s in a substance before they take it. It’s popular among recreational drug users, who want to be assured of what they’re taking.

Music festivals have been front-and-centre to the pill testing debate. A recent study found there were 64 drug-related deaths at Australian music festivals from 2000 to 2019. MDMA was involved in two-thirds of those deaths.

Pill testing is a loaded subject. I’ll spare you the details for now, but the main friction point is the differing beliefs about its overall value.

Proponents of pill testing argue that it empowers drug users to look after themselves and can save lives (if a person finds out the pill they were going to take is dangerous, and chucks it out). It’s also a way to help researchers identify dangerous drugs in circulation.

To others, pill testing is seen as an unreliable measure that gives drug users a false sense of security about the safety of what they’re taking. Those against pill testing have said it sends a troublesome message that drug use could ever be without risk.

Let’s look at the one part of Australia where pill testing is underway.

Pill testing in the ACT

Australia’s first and only fixed pill testing centre launched in Canberra under a six-month trial in 2022, and has since been extended to December 2024.

The ACT Government launched the centre as part of ongoing efforts to minimise drug use harm. It followed mobile pill testing services at the ‘Groovin’ the Moo’ Canberra festivals in 2018 and 2019.

The fixed centre has yielded some fascinating findings since its launch. They discovered a new recreational drug dubbed ‘Canberra Ketamine’, and a new variant of bath salts – a group of synthetic chemical drugs that can be fatal.

Findings from the ACT

Back in January, I spoke to Steph Tzanetis – Executive Officer at Pill Testing Australia – about the recent results of pill testing in Canberra. Pill Testing Australia is one of the groups that runs the centre in the ACT.

Tzanetis told me of a rise in demand for pill testing ahead of Spilt Milk in 2023. She said it was a success, but there was a limited number of people who discarded their drugs after being checked.

High-purity MDMA was detected at the onsite pill testing centre. They also observed an increase in cocaine purity, which is believed to be driven by shifting patterns of drug supply and narcotic networks in Australia.

Pill testing in the rest of Australia

In NSW, a pill testing trial was formally recommended to the NSW government in November 2019. It was part of a NSW Coronial Inquest into the deaths of six young people at music festivals from 2017 to 2019.

Pill testing was rejected by the NSW government, led by then-Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Concerns about the effectiveness and message of pill testing were cited as reasons for its dismissal.

Another point raised in the Inquest was decriminalising personal drug possession. This was indirectly addressed by current Premier Chris Minns last year, through a measure that will see fines handed out for personal possession, rather than criminal prosecution.

It also recommended the government stage a ‘drug summit’, which Minns has promised, but it is yet to happen. Just this week, a group of religious leaders published an open letter to Minns asking him to set a date for the summit as soon as possible.

A similar story follows in other states. The Victorian State Coroner recommended a pill testing trial in 2021, following an investigation into the drug-related deaths of five young men from 2016 to 2017. The trial has never been implemented.

Other state leaders have shown similar resistance. Except for one.

Queensland

Last year, then-Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced that Queensland would allow pill testing, the first state to do so.

It drew criticism from the Queensland Liberal-National Opposition, which said it would undermine efforts to combat youth crime and cause drug use to proliferate.

One year on, the pill testing rollout is behind schedule. An initial document set out a timeline for pill testing to start in December, but the government still hasn’t named a contractor to operate pill testing across the state. Pill Testing Australia has made a bid, but wouldn’t confirm to us if it was successful.

Despite the delay, we do know some things about the pill testing rollout in Queensland. We expect fixed sites to be near nightlife precincts, like the Brisbane CBD and Gold Coast, and are likely to be near other health services.

Mobile testing facilities will also be used. This could be for an array of events, including Schoolies or music festivals. The Queensland government wants mobile sites close to first aid services, and accessible for all potential users.

Challenges facing Queensland

Anyone living in the ACT is within arm’s reach of its pill testing centre. Distance isn’t a problem.

Queensland is as big as 733 ACTs put together. It spans several urban centres, regional hubs, and rural communities. There will be some who are many, many hours from a pill testing centre.

Tzanetis from Pill Testing Australia flagged this during my chat with her. As a potential solution, she suggested mail-in and ‘drug drop’ services be considered for Queensland, and pill testing models more generally. Natural hurdles would present with transporting drugs across the state, but was said to ultimately support health outcomes and accessibility for Queenslanders.

The Queensland government doesn’t share Tzanetis’ sentiment, saying it had no plans to introduce postal or courier services for drug checking in the state.

What happens next?

We expect some announcements from Queensland in the coming weeks about the next steps for pill testing rollout, and the delivery of drug checking services.

We’ll keep you updated as the news comes through.

This article was originally published in our weekend newsletter. You can sign up here.

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