Inside the drug testing tent at festivals | Did You Know?

Calls for pill testing, or drug checking,
at music festivals have escalated again this summer. But there’s also been a lot of misinformation
out there about what pill testing involves. Without advocating for one side or the other,
we thought we’d examine exactly what happens inside the tent when someone wants to get their drugs checked. What does the process involve? Supporters of pill testing say it lowers harms
associated with drug use and can help change someone’s behaviour. But others argue the tests encourage illegal
drug use or can’t detect new synthetic drugs. Pill testing gives people a false sense of
security, pill testing doesn’t deal with overdoses, pill testing doesn’t deal with
the fact that what is safe for one person isn’t safe for another person. Australia has so far seen one pill-testing
trial at the Canberra Groovin the Moo festival in 2018. We’re pill testing today! Australia’s trial used the same model found
at European festivals including in the UK and Austria. In fact, drug checking has been used in Europe
since the early 1990s in various forms, mostly off-site, and in some countries at festivals
and night spots. The Netherlands started in 1992 and several other European countries
have since seen checking services. Testing also now exists in New Zealand and parts of
the Americas. In Australia, DIY testing kits have been available
for years, but these tests can’t confirm dose levels and won’t pick up whether the
drugs are laced with other, potentially lethal, substances. When done professionally, like at Groovin the
Moo, a team of specialists use sophisticated spectrometer tests to find out what’s in
someone’s drugs. So let’s go through the stages of the
kind of pill testing being called-for at festivals in Australia. The testing tent would usually be set up in
the medical area at a festival. On entering, you’ll be met by a ‘harm
reduction worker’ and will be asked to lock away your phone in a safe, as there’s no
photos or video allowed inside. There’s also certain eligibility criteria
that you’ll have to meet before you were able to test your drugs. Among them are a
refusal if you’re carrying large amounts of a drug, and you’ll have to sign a waiver
before testing is possible. The waiver clearly states the testing won’t
show evidence a drug is safe to consume, and it won’t provide information about how your
body will respond to the drug being tested that day. The first thing we say, contrary to what many
people suggest, the first thing we say is that if you want to stay safe today from any
harms associated with drug consumption, you shouldn’t use any drugs today. From here, you’re given a unique number,
on a wrist band, which stays with you through the next steps and is linked to
your drug sample test. You’re also asked a few questions, like,
what kind of drug do you think you have and is it the first time you’ve ever used illegal
drugs? In Australia, eight-and-a-half million people
aged 14 or over reported using an illicit drug at some point in their life and 19 per
cent of people aged 20 to 29 said they’d tried ecstasy. After those questions, it’s then time for
the actual test. In Australia’s trial it was conducted by post-doctoral chemists, licenced
to handle illicit drugs. The drug is then placed on a platform and is photographed, weighed and measured. The chemists also have a chance to chat with
you about how drugs are manufactured and a sample of the drug is taken for testing.
The more provided, the better it can tell what’s inside. The machine used is called a Fourier-transform
infrared spectrophotometer. What happens is the patron will provide our
qualified chemist with a product, which they will place on this platform here. If you look
closely, you’ll see there’s a diamond at the base of the platform, and a laser
is fired into the product and that laser is scattered, it’s reflected by the product
according to what’s contained there-in. That scattering is recorded as a fingerprint
and that fingerprint shows up here. Every compound has a fingerprint according to the
nature of the bonds of various chemicals contained there-in and what the computer program is very
good at doing is very rapidly comparing quite a difficult fingerprint to its library of
nearly 30,000 different compounds. Once a result is found, the chemist labels
the sample with one of three classifications: A white answer means the sample is pretty
much what you expected. You could also be given a yellow classification,
which means the sample is different to what you expected. Or, you could return a red category, which
means the sample is known to be associated with increased harm/multiple overdoses or
even death. Even in this very small trial that we conducted
in Canberra, we identified two products we thought were worthy of a red. One was N-Ethylpentylone,
which is a rather unpleasant cathetone, and we fully anticipate seeing more of that
this year. The other was a product that the machine was not sure about, and you do not
want to be the person who consumes a new drug first From here, a medical officer talks you through
the test results and risks of consuming the substances identified, including those given
a white classification. And you’re directed to a drug and alcohol counsellor who provides
information on ways to reduce your risk. Before leaving the tent, there’s an amnesty
bin nearby where you can throw away any drugs you choose. In all, the process takes about 10 to 20 minutes. Despite its sophistication, some toxicologists
say the set-ups used a festivals do have their limitations. Australia’s largest workplace drug-testing
lab takes 24 hours to return accurate results. There’s some real issues here with how accurate
and reliable the technology is that we can deploy quickly and rapidly in a tent. In 2016, the Global Drug Survey said it was
the “worst time in a generation to start taking MDMA” partly because of the dangerous
levels of purity in today’s drugs compared with pills in the 90s, which were generally
about five times weaker. Organisers of the trial at Groovin the Moo
say drug checking would cost about $34,000 for each festival.