Queensland has recently announced it will become the second Australian jurisdiction to offer pill testing services. This follows the lead of the ACT, which launched a permanent fixed site pill testing service last year.
The general public have a lot of questions about the nature of pill testing and how it interacts with the criminal law. Here are some of those questions, answered.
What is pill testing?
Pill testing (or “drug checking”) involves taking a sample of a drug and testing the contents using forensic analysis in order to identify the contents and strength of the submitted sample.
Many party drugs, such as MDMA or cocaine, are dangerous because they contain harmful adulterants (substances different from the drug sought) or because they are of an unknown purity.
Pill testing services allow drug users to have their pills, tablets or powder tested for both adulterants and purity prior to use, ensuring they can make an informed decision.
The kind of forensic analysis performed on drug samples can differ by service, but generally draws on the sciences of spectroscopy (that different chemicals absorb different wavelengths of light) and chromatography (that different chemicals move at different rates through a medium).
There are generally two types of pill testing services offered locally and overseas:
- Mobile or festival-based services: which carry lightweight, mobile testing equipment to be used in environments where patrons are likely to be using drugs; and
- Fixed sites services: which are permanent testing facilities with more advanced equipment.
Generally, fixed site pill testing services can provide more information to users about what is in their drugs. However, mobile site services can also be effective at providing some general indicators of harm.
Pill testing services are currently offered in many countries including Austria, Switzerland, the UK, Portugal and New Zealand.
What is The Evidence for Pill Testing?
There is emerging, but strong, evidence that offering pill testing services can reduce the harms caused by party drugs.
Studies have shown that pill testing services:
- Reduce risky behaviour by drug users, as they are more likely to dispose of drugs containing adulterants or “go slow” if a drug is of high purity.
- Allow for great monitoring of illicit drugs, including providing valuable information to health professionals who are treating people experiencing drug-related harms.
- Shifting the illicit market to less risky drugs, by providing an information signal to dealers and manufacturers that they will lose business if they provide “dodgy” batches.
Evidence emerging from the use of pill testing services in the ACT has also proved very promising.
Two trials of mobile testing services at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra demonstrated both that festival-goers were willing to use the service and that dangerous substances were on the market. A 2019 program evaluation found that patrons who were told their party drugs were potentially dangerous almost always opted to dispose of the substance in an allocated amnesty bin, rather than take the risk.
The fixed site pill testing service CanTEST has also been providing regular updates of adulterants found in illicit drugs since its launch, informing the public about widespread, dangerous impurities that users can now avoid.
Can You Be Charged For Using Pill Testing Services?
So far, pill testing services in Australia have been provided without substantial changes to the criminal law when it comes to drug possession and use of illicit drugs.
This means that police are choosing to tolerate the practice, even though they can still technically charge users for possession of illicit drugs if they wished to enforce the law.
However, the ACT has recently passed laws decriminalising the possession of small amounts of commonly used illicit drugs. These laws come into effect on 1 October 2023, and would mean that people using pill testing services in the ACT are only risking a small fine, rather than criminal prosecution, should police choose to enforce the law.
It’s unclear at this stage how the Queensland government is going to approach the question of police enforcement at pill testing services.
Last year, New Zealand became the first nation to officially legalise pill testing services by making it explicitly under law to possess and hand over drugs for the purposes of pill testing. This step removed the “grey area” of enforcement around pill testing and means that New Zealanders can use services without any fear of police enforcement.