MDMA claimed three lives last weekend. Legalised pill testing might have saved them.

Tonight, three families are mourning the death of loved ones following the cluster of MDMA overdoses this weekend in Melbourne.

More than 20 people have been hospitalised, and three have died, from what’s reported to be a “bad batch” of MDMA – commonly called ‘ecstasy’ or ‘molly’ – circling Chapel Street, one of the city’s most popular night club strips.

The toxicology reports aren’t back yet, but a “bad batch” means one of two things.

Either the purity or concentration of the psychoactive chemical 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), is extremely high; or the drug has been “cut” with – or contains – another substance. Perhaps opioids, perhaps methamphetamine, perhaps something else entirely.

It is possible to test for both these scenarios with pill testing. Only problem being: MDMA is illegal, so the testing of MDMA pills is also illegal.

“It’s wrong to talk about a ‘bad batch’ of drugs, it’s more accurate to talk about a ‘bad batch’ of police ministers who are standing by a policy that is not working,” President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation (ADLRF) Dr Alex Wodak told Mamamia. 

A "bad batch" of MDMA has been blamed for the deaths of three people last weekend. (Images: iStock)

"The policy hasn't stopped people taking drugs, or being hospitalised, or dying from overdose.

"Through pill testing, we can identify the main ingredient, the dosage of that ingredient, and if the pill contains any life-threatening additives. But the police ministers won't allow it because it 'sends the wrong message'."


That is the main argument against legalising pill testing - that it might encourage drug use. "The testing of illegal drugs creates the dangerous fiction that they are then safe to consume," a spokesperson for NSW Police Minister Troy Grant told Mamamia. 

But the 'consumption' of MDMA is happening anyway.

"Ecstasy use in Australia fluctuates. It was increasing before 2010, and we saw a decline in use between 2010 and 14, Now, it seems to be increasing again," Professor Alison Ritter, who is the Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, explained.

"Approximately 2.5 per cent of the general population has taken ecstasy in the past year. Australia is in an upswing in regards to ecstasy use and has been for a year or two."

Still, the Police Ministers will not budge.

"No test can guarantee the safety of an illegal drug or its effect on an individual. We strongly urge people not to take any prohibited drugs. They’re illegal for a reason," the spokesperson for Mr Grant said.

Indeed. But the law, nor the fear or overdosing, is stopping the consumption of MDMA in Australia. And people are dying.

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Before the three deaths in Melbourne, there was 26-year-old Jake Monahan, of Nimbin, who died after his body and brain overheated after taking drugs at a dance festival on New Year's Eve. Two others at the same festival were hospitalised with overdoses.

Before this, in September last year, there was 25-year-old Sylvia Choi who died at Stereosonic musical festival in Sydney. She told her boyfriend "I'm not feeling my high," after she took MDMA. She was dead five hours later.

In April, there were four drug-related hospitalisations in 24 hours in NSW. Two people were hospitalised after overdoses at the Midnight Mafia dance party in Homebush and two were hospitalised at the Groovin' the Moo festival in the Hunter region, one of these a 15-year-old girl.

"If it was your loved one, or my loved one, and you can't prevent them from taking drugs, you would want those drugs to be tested, at least," Dr Wodak said.

And, often, prevention is impossible. The mother of 19-year-old Stefan Woodward, who died after taking pills at a music festival in December, 2015, had begged him to to wear sunscreen, drink water, and not take drugs before he left the house that day. "I can't afford to bury you," she said. Hours later, she was called to the hospital. There was nothing doctors could do.


How would pill testing work?

It would mean the donation of a pill, or part of a pill, from a user to a testing facility. This testing facility might be located at the festival or nightclub (called on-site testing) or at a separate facility, for example a lab on Oxford St in Sydney or Chapel Street in Melbourne (called off-site testing).

"Pill testing uses machines, like those used by customs and police officers, to test the chemical compounds and purity of the pill," Professor Ritter said.

"A survey recently done of regular festival goers in Australia showed people are willing to wait up to one hour to receive the results of the pill test. The same survey also showed that Australians are prepared to go to off-site testing facilities to test the ingredients in their pills."

Would it make any difference?

"Research from overseas showed that 50 per cent of people would change their behaviour if the pill test came back showing risky ingredients or purity levels," Professor Ritter said.

"This might not mean they won't take the pill, but they might only take half, or take it in the presence of another, sober person. We don't know if that the same trend would be seen in Australia, and we really need a pilot study to see."

An example of what ecstasy tablets can look like. (Wikimedia)

But a pilot study in Australia is impossible while the testing of drugs is illegal. The ADLRF attempted to trial pill testing over the 2016 festival season, starting in February last year, but it did not receive government support.


"We talked about it, but when it came down to logistics and the equipment - where each piece of equipment might cost $50,000 and the police were threatening to confiscate that equipment - we couldn't do it," Dr Wodak said.

What are the benefits?

Yes, pill testing will help keep drug users more informed and, in this, hopefully reduce the rates of overdose and death. But the benefits of pill testing extend far beyond the person considering taking the drugs.

It affects dealers; like any market, the drug market is about making money. At the moment, this money can be made regardless of the quality or safety of the drugs being sold.

"No pill testing or regulation in this area means there's no competition in the safety of pills in Australia," Dr Wodak said.

"Testing affects how many pills a dealer sells, because it impacts their reputation and means they might have people coming back, asking for their money refunded. Pill testing would mean you have a competition in safety, as well as price, in the Australian drug market. Surely that's a good thing."

Then, there's awareness. Pill testing can help educate others who are considering drug use. Friends of friends. People at the same festival. People who've brought from the same dealer.

"When toxicology results do come through, the health departments could issue an alert saying that this particular drug, with this logo and of this colour, is high in purity or contains adulterants," Professor Ritter said.

"We can't issue these warnings at the moment, because drug taking is illegal."

Anna Wood and Annabel Catt were high-profile cases of young people who died after taking ecstasy pills. (Images: Wikipedia, Channel 7)

Is this concept of issue-a-warning-and-people-will-stay-away idealistic, or would it actually occur?

Dr Wodak said it would work, and it has been shown to work overseas. "In some nightclubs in Europe, testing stations will put up signs saying 'beware of this specific pill, you can dispose of it in amnesty bins in these locations' and people do throw pills out and they do tell other people. This has been recorded."

How much do you really know about ecstasy?

Finally, pill testing would be a step forward in delivering wider education around drug use.

Currently, anything to do with drug-taking is taboo, hidden under the blanket of legality. People are under-educated and, other than completely abstaining, have no way of increasing their chances of safety while taking drugs. Because of this, people are dying.

Some examples:

People don't talk about different drug interactions. That mixing MDMA with some antidepressants or cold and flu medications, can cause the potentially lethal 'serotonin syndrome'. Infrequent users are unlikely to know this, and it's not advertised because it falls in an area that is outside the law.

As well as this, there's hydration. Taking ecstasy messes with the body's hydration signals. It causes the release of cortisol, which often leads to sweating and excessive energy - i.e. lots of dancing. And, at the same time, ecstasy also releases vasopressin - a water retention hormone - meaning your body holds onto more water than it would usually. People taking ecstasy are in danger of both dehydration or over-hydration. Users need to know the signs but, again, it's not talked about.

"We need more education on drug interactions, hydration, and how to look after yourself and your friends when you're taking drugs," Professor Ritter said.

Tonight, as three families are mourning, and several other families are anxiously awaiting the recovery of their loved ones, let's consider our options. Let's push to legalise pill testing in Australia. The lives of young people depend on it.

"We need to be pragmatic and understand that people aren't going to stop taking drugs," Dr Wodak said. "It is the responsibility of our politicians to protect the lives of young people. Even if legalising pill testing would see a slight increase in drug use, this would be preferable if it also saw a reduction in drug-related hospitalisations and deaths."

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