Pill testing has arrived in the ACT. Is it a sign of changing attitudes towards drugs?

Australia’s first fixed-site pill and drug testing clinic will open in the ACT on Thursday, with supporters calling for the program to be rolled out nationally.
The government-funded CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service will offer free and confidential chemical analyses of illicit substances twice a week at a facility in Canberra’s CBD.

The six-month pilot program will be run by Directions Health Services, in partnership with Pill Testing Australia and Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy.

“The pilot aims to reduce drug-related harm in the ACT by helping the community avoid the unknown or potentially dangerous substances that can sometimes be appearing in illicit drugs,” Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said.
The establishment of the clinic follows in 2018 and 2019.
The trial, which tested 170 substances, revealed seven pills people thought were pure MDMA contained n-ethylpentylone, a stimulant considered by some health authorities to be dangerous and which has been linked to previous festival drug deaths.

Every person told their pills contained n-ethylpentylone binned them.

How will it work?

Members of the public will be able to have their drugs chemically analysed at the facility between 10am and 1pm on Thursdays, and 6pm and 9pm on Fridays.
“We can test virtually any drugs that people are considering injecting or consuming,” Directions Health Service chief executive Bronwyn Henry said.
“We can tell them that the two major substances that are in there and potentially other substances that are present … and then we can do further testing for fentanyl and for purity as well.”
While no substances tested by the service will be confiscated, they will be able to dispose of them on-site if they no longer wish to take them.

“It is really important to emphasise that this is not a service that will tell people that the drugs they already intend to take are safe,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“This is about identifying whether there are substances that are unexpected in the drugs that people are already intending to take, and to provide advice to people about the harms associated with drug use.”
There also won’t be any criminal repercussions for people who visit CanTEST.
“It’s a judgement-free zone,” Ms Henry said.
“Really what we’re interested in doing is giving them that information that helps them make better choices and helps protect them.”

The clinic will also offer drop-in consultations with nurses offering general health, sexual health, and mental health advice.

Will it encourage more people to take drugs?

Ms Stephen-Smith emphasised the ACT government’s advice will always be to avoid illicit drugs, saying abstaining is “the safest option”.
“However we recognise some people will choose to use drugs and there is a need for initiatives that reduce the harms associated with drug use,” she said.

“Services like these are based in evidence, which could potentially mean a young person who makes a mistake, is experimenting, might not have their life cut short.”

In a 2021 study from Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, music festival attendees who planned to take ecstasy reported they wouldn’t take more drugs if a pill testing service was available.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s evidence manager, Eleanor Costello, said it’s important the issues are viewed through a health lens.

“Pill testing trials are one part of a range of things that we can all do to reduce harm, and to make sure that people can access support earlier and that we don’t have this stigma associated with people reaching out for help when they do need it,” she told SBS News.

The changing attitudes to drugs in Australia

In 2019, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey found almost one in three (57 per cent) of Australians supported pill and drug testing, while 27 per cent were directly opposed.
There are hopes the success of the ACT pilot could lead to a national re-think.
“No-one wants to see young lives lost and no-one wants to see the gutwrenching grief that families and loved ones go through when this happens,” Harm Reduction Australia and Pill Testing Australia president Gino Vumbaca said.

“We encourage all governments to take up our standing offer, as the ACT government did in 2018, to deliver a festival-based pill testing pilot free of charge to demonstrate the effectiveness of our service.”

Ms Costello said she hopes it would provide “confidence” to those opposed to pill testing that the trials “can be quite informative and do some good”.
“I think the ACT has really paved the way for some conversations around how might that work in other states, and what could they do to make that happen,” she said.
After decriminalising the personal use of cannabis in 2019, the ACT government is now looking to do the same for small amounts of illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin, and MDMA.
The proposed legislation would give police the ability to give someone caught in possession of illegal drugs a $100 fine.

If the person doesn’t wish to pay the fine, they can choose to instead attend a drug diversion program.

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