As we’ve previously covered, 2015 was something of a dark year for Australian music festivals, and no, we’re not talking about all of the cancellations and fallen companies. We’re referring to the six deaths and the countless overdoses.
The death of 19-year-old Stefan Woodward in December marked the fourth death at an electronic music event in as many months, leading many in the music community to call on the government to finally put a stop to the tragedy.
Pill testing has been common practice at festivals and dance parties in Europe for decades and experts like ER doctor and drug harm minimisation advocate Dr David Caldicott agreed it was time to introduce the practice in Australia.
As the biggest consumers of ecstasy in the world, it’s clear Aussies won’t be giving up their pills any time soon. And yet, the government’s only move seems to be to double down on ineffective and even dangerous methods, like the aforementioned sniffer dogs.
Most politicians won’t even consider such a measure. When asked about the possibility of introducing pill testing at Aussie festivals, NSW Deputy Premier Troy Grant scoffed at the notion, arguing that it would effectively endorse drug use.
But just what happens when you test people’s pills at a music festival or dance party? According to the literature, those who discover what they bought is not what they thought it was are less likely to end up taking it.
Is the effect the same in Australia? It’s hard to say. Australia only had pill testing for a short time and there is currently no reliable research available on the impact of pill testing on the habits of Australian drug takers.
It’s that mystery that recently inspired Vice to attend an unidentified bush doof and walk around offering to test people’s drugs. Naturally, many were reticent to offer up their drugs to strangers claiming to want to test their pills.
“It took a while to find someone to volunteer their stuff,” Vice‘s Dan Roxanne writes. “Everyone thought I was a cop until I told them I wasn’t. Then, after they’d decided I wasn’t a cop, they were reluctant for me to take photos of their drugs.”“I was going to take it without any thought, but now this has got me a little scared.”
The pill testing process is about as simple as taking a pregnancy test. You mix a small sample of the given drug in a colourless solution and wait for the colour to change. You then compare the colour against a provided chart, which tells you what’s actually in your drugs.
After wandering around the festival in search of a willing participant, Roxanne found a guy named Edward who purchased $200 worth of ketamine, which after being tested, turned out to be Ritalin, much to the chagrin of Edward.
Another punter named Matt was chuffed to discover his pills were in fact pure ecstasy, whilst others weren’t as lucky and discovered what they thought was ecstasy was in fact amphetamine or speed – not what they thought they were buying.
Roxanne and a punter named Gus were given a particular fright when a test showed a colour they hadn’t previously seen (black) and which did not appear in the manual which came with the EZ Test pill testing kits.
“It was supposedly MDMA but after mixing a sample it went sort of orange but with a black tinge. I emailed the photos to EZ Test who confirmed the orange indicated amphetamine, but the black was anyone’s bet,” Roxanne writes.
“Gus, who had donated the sample, didn’t seem surprised. ‘The guy I bought it from is a douchebag and shady as hell,’ he said. ‘I was going to take it without any thought, but now this has got me a little scared.'”
And therein lies the point of pill testing. Sure, ‘Gus’ could still take the substance he purchased if he felt like it, but probably he won’t and at the very least he now has the data to make an informed decision.
As Roxanne notes, one of the main issues with drugs at music festivals today is not that punters are overdosing, but are instead purchasing substances they think might be pure, but instead turn out to be adulterated and containing something they could have a fatal reaction to.
Politicians like Troy Grant would do well to pay attention to reports like Vice‘s and the wealth of literature about pill testing that’s out there. But they’ll probably just continue to keep their heads in the sand as more young people die.