Pill Testing Has Been Used In These European Countries For Almost Two Decades. Here's How It Works
Some countries have had this since the early 90s.
A number of European countries have already adopted pill testing as a standard feature of their public health policies, and these organisations have experienced great success in detecting risky compounds in ecstasy pills as well as dangerous doses of MDMA.
Multiple peak health bodies across Australia have now called on state and territory governments to implement pill testing at music festivals after a spate of drug-related deaths at festivals since September 2018.
Six people have died at music festivals in that time, and five of those deaths occurred in NSW. The most recent death was 19-year-old Alexandra Ross-King at Parramatta's FOMO festival on Jan. 12.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has remained firmly opposed to the idea of pill testing despite mounting pressure from associations such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Australian Medical Association.
Berejiklian has stated that for every expert who advises the state government to trial pill testing, "there's another few that say 'don't'".
A spokesperson for her office told BuzzFeed News that it will not comment on the experts the premier has spoken to who are opposed to the implementation of pill testing.
In addition to the pressure from these medical organisations, hundreds of protesters attended a rally in Sydney's CBD over the weekend, calling on the NSW government to adopt a harm reduction approach and trial pill testing.
At the Sydney rally Dr Kerryn Phelps, the independent member for Wentworth, told the crowd that Berejiklian's continued assertion that there is no evidence for the success of pill-testing is "nonsense".
"In Europe they have been pill testing since 1992 and in some countries [they are] still doing it because they see it works," said Phelps.
There are currently 14 pill testing organisations in Europe, each with varying analysis technology and methods of operation.
In countries that have introduced pill testing operations, there has been no increase in drug use, and the chemical composition of illicit drugs has tended to become closer to what is expected by drug takers, suggesting that the testing has an influence on the illicit market.
The Netherlands founded the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) in 1992, which was the first pill testing initiative in Europe. It currently operates at 23 fixed sites across the country. DIMS is recognised as an official branch of the public health system.
The DIMS pill testing facilities offers its services to the public for two to three hours a week, using a reliable laboratory technique – gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) – to inspect pills.
People with ecstasy pills can go to the facilities and have their drugs tested for composition and dose, and receive this information within a week via a text or phone call.
DIMS staff also offer one-on-one intervention sessions to discuss the dangers of taking illicit drugs and are offered harm-reduction reading materials.
According to the Global Drug Survey 2016 most young people will now purchase drugs from alternative sources before festivals rather than from dealers at events, as these stationary labs allow them to have their drugs tested before events.
The information from the tests is used to monitor the drug market and DIMS will distribute warnings to the public through an app called Red Alert if it detects a risky compound.
In 2008 DIMS issued mass warnings throughout the Netherlands and Belgium via television and radio broadcasts as well as internet posts about a batch of pink pills with Superman logos containing 170 mg of PMMA, a toxic compound.
In the United Kingdom, where there was no pill testing service on offer at the time, four young people died from consuming the PMMA-heavy pills, while no deaths were reported in the Netherlands.
Checkit! is an onsite pill testing service that has appeared at events, nightclubs and festivals in Austria since 1997.
Pill testing is a part of Austrian drug policy and Checkit! is a collaborative project between Addiction Support Services Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna. Pill testing is considered a legal procedure in Austria if it is conducted by a scientific institution.
Checkit! uses a number of analysis techniques that don't require a permanent laboratory (including high performance liquid chromatography) that can reliably determine compounds in pills within 20 minutes.
Checkit! communicates the danger of pills through a colour-coding system (yellow for pills that have the expected contents and red for pills that the researchers deem risky); reports with aggregated data from testing is then posted online.
At each large music event around 400 people use the pill testing services and Checkit!'s testing has been shown to decrease consumption of ecstasy pills among festival patrons if the pills contain unexpected compounds or high dosages of MDMA.
Pill testing has been offered in Zurich since 2001 through mobile onsite testing at nightclubs and events run by an organisation called Safer Party as well as the Drug Information Centre (DIZ), which provides pill testing twice a week.
Pill testing is considered to be an important part of Swiss drug policy and these testing sites are run through Zurich's city government.
In 2016, 2,078 substance analyses were performed through Safer Party and the DIZ, with 794 online alerts published as a result that indicated unexpected psychoactive substances in pills or dangerously high dosages of MDMA.
3,050 visitors used the pill testing and counselling services in 2016 and the researchers continue to emphasise to visitors that consuming drugs despite testing remains a risky activity.
Spain and Portugal
Energy Control was founded in 1999 and operates four fixed laboratory sites in Spain and Portugal as well as mobile, on-site testing at nightclubs and festivals.
The organisation offers both extremely reliable testing within the labs and a scaled-down version for its mobile sites that can tell visitors the contents of their pills and the quantity of those compounds.
The fixed labs are open to the public once a week and each collect between 50 and 80 samples weekly. The mobile sites each collect up to 150 samples per night.
Energy Control also surveys its visitors to track their harm reduction strategies and evaluate the success of the service. It has been able to compile a huge amount of data about the illicit drug market, and regularly publishes academic papers.
Energy Control also tests LSD (acid) at its labs and in 2014 identified 24 samples on the first day of Portugal's Boom Festival that contained 25x-NBOMe, a potent, potentially life-threatening synthetic hallucinogenic compound.
After an alert was disseminated, researchers found that on the second day of the festival an unexpected proportion of tests were for LSD.
Energy Control has operated in Colombia since 2013, offering high quality analyses at nightclubs, festivals and events.
The Loop is an organisation founded in 2013 that runs onsite drug testing at festivals and clubs, providing harm reduction materials, brief interventions with the service users and medical assistance.
The Loop uses technology that can tell visitors the ingredients and quantity of compounds in their pills after approximately 45 minutes.
UK police are supportive of the service, and The Loop works with police, health and welfare organisations, researchers and politicians.
The service tests 100 to 200 samples from ecstasy pills per day and reached a maximum capacity of testing in 2017 with 500 pills being tested per day across three music festivals.
The Loop also posts warnings on its Twitter account about dangerous ingredients in pill batches or pills that contain extremely high quantities of MDMA.