The Facts: How Pill Testing Would Work In Australia

Two more young people are dead, but governments are still viciously resisting calls for pill testing.

Despite advice from medical professionals, drug and addiction experts, and even the Australian Medical Association, the NSW and federal governments have quickly shot down any plans for such a regime. Indeed, it seems those most opposed to pill testing actually don't know exactly what the system is or how it would work.

"What would be horrific would be if you had such a regime, something was deemed safe and you have multiple deaths as a result," said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Tuesday, announcing her government would not entertain calls for pill testing.

But that's not how pill testing works.

A pill testing regime -- of the type proposed by drug and emergency medicine experts in Canberra, and successfully trialled at the Groovin The Moo festival in May -- would not ever tell a person that their drug is "safe". The system does not work that way, according to emergency physician Dr David Caldicott, who was a leader of the trial.

"We would not employ anyone who would assign a value on 'good' or 'bad'. It doesn't 'pass' the test, it's not a pass or fail test. It's an identification test," he told ten daily.

Pill testing can analyse tablets, powder or pills (Getty Images)

Let's break down some of the myths around pill testing and some of the arguments proposed by opponents, and actually look at how pill testing would work in Australia.

What is pill testing?

Pill testing is not a new or even radical plan in many parts of the world. Indeed, when ten daily caught up with Caldicott on Tuesday, he was battling jet lag after recently returning from Vienna where he attended a conference marking 20 years of pill testing in Austria.

"The gestation period leading up to what we did in Canberra is probably the longest in the world," Caldicott said, referring to the trial he and colleagues ran at the Groovin festival in May, where two deadly substances were detected.

"This is so mundane in Europe, there are good practice guidelines that we follow."

The pill testing system, as proposed by Caldicott and his team, would see a tent set up in the medical area of a music festival. Those planning to use drugs would take a sample to trained doctors and analysts, who use laboratory-grade equipment to scrutinise the drug to give a best estimation of what it contains.

"People who consume drugs genuinely believe what they acquire is what they have been told it is. The reality is, that's often not the case," Caldicott said. Some users might be sold a product they believe is ecstasy, but might be a far stronger drug, or even watered down with harmful or poisonous cutting agents.

Young people want it. A survey by Triple J radio of 11,000 Australians aged 18-29 found 83 percent would use pill testing at a festival, and 55 percent had taken drugs into a festival.

The test, despite claims from politicians, does not give a rating on how safe the drug is. It simply allows people, who are already planning to consume a drug anyway, to know what they are about to put in their mouth. Caldicott said this information often led to people discarding their drugs, as evidenced by long-running programs in Europe and his own Canberra trial.

Do people discard their drugs?

In a word, yes. An important part of the pill testing program is an 'amnesty bin', where drugs can be discarded.

"If we know anything about young people, they care a great deal about themselves, their appearance, and becoming unwell or dying. They're more than happy to abandon what they've got in their possession. That's a matter of fact," Caldicott said.

"It directly changes their behaviour at the point they're about to consume it. Our model is to prevent harm. We see this as a medical intervention. My job is to stop them from being patients."

(Getty Images)

Another major component of the program is the information gathered. If a submitted drug sample is found to be extremely dangerous, pill testers can issue a warning advising of a potentially harmful batch of drugs circulating at the festival.

It also allows medical staff access to drug users Caldicott refers to as "invisible" -- the overwhelming majority of users who take drugs occasionally and recreationally, but are not arrested or admitted to hospital.

While their drugs are being tested, which can take some time, counsellors speak to the user about their habits and safety, and give advice that the safest option would be to dispose of their drugs entirely.

"We’re making sure people aren't hurt, and then we can chat to them about their choices. It’s much easier to talk to young people about lifestyle issues if they're still alive," Caldicott said.

"This is a group who have turned up with the absolute intention to take their drugs, and will do so. This is quite a remarkable intervention."

What do opponents say?

"If a pill is passed by the testers at a music festival and popper then dies, who is culpable?" asked Peter Brown, deputy editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

"Can you even begin to imagine the culpability the first time a tested pill turns out not to be “safe” at all and harms someone?" asked Imre Salusinszky, former media director for ex-Premier Mike Baird.

Well, as Caldicott said, both these claims -- as well as those voiced by Premier Berejiklian and other commentators -- are far off the mark. For one, pill testing clients are asked to sign a waiver releasing the testers from legal responsibility. And again, the drugs do not "pass" any test, and users are not given advice that it would be safe to take their drugs. In fact, counsellors at the testing site explicitly advise against taking drugs.

Drugs seized by police during the Defqon dance festival in 2013 (AAP Image/Supplied by NSW Police)

"The guidelines are that nobody ever, ever, and we're very explicit about this, is told this is a good or safe drug. We'd say 'this looks to be MDMA, people have taken low doses of MDMA and it has hurt them.' We're providing health and harm info, and we would not employ anyone who would assign a value on good or bad," Caldicott said.

"It doesn't 'pass' the test. It's not a pass or fail test."

Others, such as Prime Minister Tony Abbott's former chief of staff and now Sky News commentator Peta Credlin, have claimed pill testing would "legitimise" and encourage drug use. Caldicott, referring to evidence from European models, said this is not the case either.

(Getty Images)

"From our colleagues in Europe, fewer people use fewer drugs. There’s no honey pot effect. We see people using drugs more carefully," he said.

"People here are using drugs like candy. It doesn't matter if the cops say not to take it, nobody is paying attention. We’re not touching any of these people with programs and strategies that date from the 1980s. It’s a different generation and different market."

"We’re not touching the edges of this market right now."