Adriana Buccianti received a call from her son Daniel who said he had taken "bad acid”. Seven hours later he was dead from a drug overdose at the Rainbow Serpent music festival in western Victoria in 2012.
"My world fell apart when police arrived at my door to tell me my boy had died at a festival. There's no other word to describe it but horror. What devastates me further is knowing we have a way to help stop this madness," the grieving mother describes.
To make sure her son did not die in vain, Buccianti launched a petition on Change.org, urging the government to support and fund pill testing services at festivals, which she says doctors, experts and overseas evidence has shown to prevent deaths.
Her petition has attracted almost 110,000 signatures (and still counting). But seven years on, not much has changed. We’re still hearing news of young people dying from a drug overdose at a music festival. Then calls for pill testing makes our headlines. Then the same calls for pill testing are shut down and rejected. Then another person takes a risk with their life again. Will this depressing cycle ever end?
"We have evidence that pill testing works. We have the majority of Australians supporting pill testing. The only thing getting in the way are politicians,” says Buccianti.
So, what exactly is pill testing?
It’s helpful first to understand what pill testing is. Recreational drugs often contain poisonous ‘filler’ substances such as rat poison and other chemicals. Given these substances are illegal and therefore unregulated, there is uncertainty around the strength and purity of the drug which can lead to accidental overdoses.
What pill testing simply does is determine how ‘pure’ the tablet is. The aim of these tests is to enable recreational drug users to make informed decisions about what substances they take.
Pill testing has been commonly used around the world for decades. For example, since 1992, pill testing has been part of the Netherlands national drug policy. Government-sanctioned services have been in Austria since 1997, Belgium since 1993 and Switzerland since 2001. Not-for-profit organisations have been testing in the US and Canada since 1999 and in the UK since 2013.
Our cousins in New Zealand offer pill testing at festivals by the volunteer group KnowYourStuffNZ, which is independent but supported by the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
In Australia, the first professionally administered pill-testing was in a mobile laboratory at Canberra’s Groovin’ the Moo festival in April 2018.
There are readily available DIY kits which have been used by some festival-goers for years. However, the downside is these kits cannot confirm dose levels of a particular drug and do not provide information on other potentially dangerous cutting agents.
When people discover the drugs they have are not the substances they thought they were, about half say they won’t take them, according to KnowYourStuffNZ.
The case for and against pill testing
Australians are among the leading consumers of ecstasy in the world — 2.1 million of us report having used the drug at least once. So with this alarming statistic, isn’t pill testing a no-brainer?
The Australian Medical Association and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre are supporters of pill testing which has shown to change the black market, with products publicly identified as dangerous being found to leave the market. Evidence has also shown pill testing changes behaviour. As mentioned earlier, negative results deter a majority of people from consuming drugs.
The main argument against pill testing according to Andrew Leibie, a scientist with Safework Laboratories and a member of the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists is the concern with the usefulness of on-site pill testing. He states pill testing services could leave consumers with a “false sense of security that the party drugs they buy may be safe when this is not the case”.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian shares Leibie’s concerns saying, "If there was a way in which we could ensure that lives were saved through pill testing we would consider it - but there is no evidence provided to the government on that.”
In response to Premier Berejiklian’s stance, former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer says “How a government which presides in a jurisdiction in which a medically-supervised injecting centre has operated successfully and with indisputable success in Kings Cross over 18 years, can be so vehemently opposed to trialling – or even discussing or considering – pill testing is difficult, almost impossible, to understand”.
Education is key to preventing deaths
We know people are going to do drugs despite all the crackdowns. Each day we spend arguing against pill testing or spend time “exploring” it instead of implementing it is another day that we may lose more lives.
Would having pill testing available have saved those who have died because of drugs in the past? We may not know - but doing nothing certainly didn't help.
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