It’s Time To Put Pills to the Test

Words by: Élodie Ricaud 
Art by: Callum Johnson

Nothing makes me more energised and giddy than the magical hours spent at a music event. I’m talking festivals, concerts, bush doofs, clubs, bars, gigs or even someone’s over-cramped house party at four in the morning. These settings allow people to dance their hearts out, socialise, celebrate, experiment, make utter fools of themselves (all in good spirit) and temporarily shed the weight of the world — which is the very essence of life. Like most universal rituals of festivity, they are also places where high levels of drug consumption take place, sometimes even as a social prerequisite. 

However, while more accepted stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco run rampant in Australia (cue the person asking for their fourth round of vodka Red Bulls while sucking their nicotine-filled vape), other illicit party drugs — commonly referred to as ecstasy (pingas), ketamine (ket), marijuana (weed) and cocaine (coke), to name a few — are also prevalent in this mix, but for obvious legality reasons, they remain consumed on the down-low. This obviously isn’t a new revelation; people have been using these drugs recreationally for decades, with many avid consumers opting for a different kind of comedown than the gut-retching experience of an alcohol-induced hangover. In many instances, I don’t blame them.  

According to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, approximately nine million Aussies had illegally used these types of drugs at some point in their lifetime. A figure which, with increasing research and exposure, is expected to grow. Yet there also lies a hazardous and sometimes unavoidable risk with the operation of such an unregulated market. It’s sad to admit how often my friends and I have had a bleak awakening at an event after witnessing someone get escorted away by medical staff after consuming an illicit substance that was ostensibly harmless. While you can go to a bar and watch your drink being poured, you don’t get to see how the pills from your local dealer are created.

Australia’s relentless criminalisation of illicit drugs continues to produce a market tainted by unreliability and shadiness, which in turn causes such a popular recreational activity to be one that is, in many instances, life-threatening. This is where pill testing comes in. 

Over the past few years, there has been a strong push to establish drug testing services all over Australia at places like festivals, and rightly so. 

This risk-reduction strategy allows experts to use handheld infrared spectroscopy technology to analyse a small amount of a drug, to find out what substances it contains and its potency. This has proven time and time again to be effective. Not only have several liberal European countries such as the Netherlands provided a mounting heap of positive evidence, but other countries such as New Zealand with similar political views have also reinforced the benefits of pill testing. 

Most importantly, following Australia’s first trials in 2018 and 2019 at Groovin the Moo in Canberra, eye-opening discoveries were documented. Seven people’s lives were potentially saved after fragments of the dangerous ethylpentylone substance were found in their tablets. It was the health guidance that many people said they had needed.  

But how can we remain ignorant to pill testing now that we’ve seen its potential?

So far, there has been no evidence that has lent credit to the fears and doubts circulating. People haven’t relied on these pill testing facilities to get more hammered, but rather they have left with more information and awareness than ever before. Furthermore, the idea of preaching abstinence from illicit drugs screams of ineffectual wishful thinking and naivety. 

Just as Australia provides safety measures for all of its potentially harmful — or, dare I say, more toxic — legal drugs (like tobacco), why isn’t it possible to fathom the idea of this being extended to other recreational drugs? 

I love going to music events — but just like I feel confident in all of the alcohol support services available, I’d like to see more options available for a wider demographic of people so we can all party with confidence.

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