Illegal drugs are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
And while Forrest Gump’s mother probably didn’t have MDMA in mind when she passed down her sage advice, it applies quite nicely here.
From cocaine as pure as snow, to a nightmare brew of MDMA, detergent and bleach, taking drugs, of any kind, is fraught with risk.
Tragically, the downside of this risk has been seen in hospitals across Australia this summer, as festival goers pop, snort and shoot up, blissfully unaware about what exactly is running through their veins.
But what if a take-home testing kit, found in select tobacco and trinket shops, could help drug users identify what’s in their stash before they take the wrong thing?
Australian experts are now recommending drug users invest in a legal, DIY, colour change drug test, known as a reagent kit, to analyse their drugs before consumption.
The warning comes after the summer festival season saw a string of drug overdoses and fatalities, sparking a bitter fight to implement pill-testing services at all events.
As an “interim measure”, universities and advocacy groups have begun handing out reagent pill testing kits to students and festival goers.
The SSDP chapter at The University of Melbourne offers free packs which include the test kit and safety information.
Students at Edith Cowan University, in Western Australia, are also provided with pill testing kits, free of charge.
ECU senior lecturer in addiction Stephen Bright said while the university doesn’t condone its students taking drugs, they are concerned with their wellbeing.
“We expect that some students will take drugs, so until we have sophisticated methods of pill testing available at festival settings, offering the reagent kit is the next best option,” Dr Bright said.
WHAT IS PILL TESTING?
Pill testing, is a method of harm reduction that involves the use of laboratory-grade equipment to pinpoint what chemicals are in your recreational drugs.
Advocacy organisation Harm Reduction Australia claim that in other countries where pill testing is commonplace, people usually drop a sample of their drugs to a service for testing.
There, they’re given “information about the risks of consuming the substances identified” as well as other support.
Cities like Vienna, Madrid and Zurich allow people to anonymously drop off their drugs for safe and accurate testing.
Authorities in Australia however have adopted a ‘tough on drugs’ crackdown, with the nation recording the highest prevalence of ecstasy use in the world.
The ACT government conducted the first sanctioned pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra last year.
A statement by ACT Health supported the use of pill testing.
“Pill testing better manages your risks and helps you make an informed decision about whether you take the drug,” the statement said.
These kits come with a glass vial containing a ‘reagent’ chemical that reacts with small samples of a drug by changing colour.
The coloured drug is then matched to a colour chart, which reveals the purity or cut of a drug.
This is a single use test and can be found in select tobacconists and other stores around Australia and are perfectly legal to purchase.
But Dr Bright warned users to test their drugs with “multiple kits”, as the test is not a substitute for laboratory-grade analysis equipment.
“This is rudimentary at best, but far better than blindly swallowing tablets,” Dr Bright said.
“Using a reagent test is better than nothing and we all know the safest way to avoid harm is not to take ecstasy at all”.
Dr Bright also said the government’s ‘Just Say No’ message is “just not working”, given the prevalence of ecstasy use hasn’t changed in more than two decades.
He urged the government to take an alternative approach in order to save young lives.
“Ecstasy in Australia is one of the most dangerous in the world and the chemicals going in with this drug are becoming more dangerous as well,” he said.
“In the past few years, nearly 500 new drugs have been identified, so the stakes have never been higher.”
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer is also lending his voice to the cause, publicly calling for the government to take pill testing seriously.
In an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald this month, Mr Palmer said a government that refuses to discuss or even consider pill testing was “difficult, almost impossible, to understand”.
“A clear majority want to reduce the harm at festivals and get pill testing pilots up all over the country,” Mr Palmer wrote.
“Wouldn’t everyone want to do this?”
He slammed politicians for being ‘ill-informed’ and ‘self-serving’ through the pill testing debate, calling instead on them to put their greed aside.
“Surely there is only one priority here and that is to try any initiative that may serve to reduce the likelihood of harm and save lives. Surely this is more important than winning an election.”