By PROFESSOR ALISON RITTER.
The death of 19-year-old Georgina Bartter at a music festival on the weekend from a suspected ecstasy overdose could possibly have been avoided with a simple harm-minimisation intervention. Pill testing, or drug checking as it’s known in Europe, provides feedback to users on the content of illegal drugs, allowing them to make informed choices.
Taking illicit drugs, especially ecstasy, is not particularly unusual for someone of Bartter’s age. A 2010 survey found more than 11% of 20- to 29-year-olds and 7% of 18- to 19-year-olds had taken the drug in the previous 12 months. According to annual research among 1,000 ecstasy users, 70% of these pills are taken at clubs, festivals and dance parties.
Australia is internationally applauded for our harm-minimisation approach to drugs but we have failed to introduce pill testing, even though it is an intuitively appealing strategy.
Pill-testing kits or booths at venues where pills are known to be consumed could inform users about the content of illicit drugs. As we have equipment that can test drugs in real time, people intending to take them could have them checked beforehand.
Research shows young people are highly supportive of pill testing; more than 82% of the 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 supported its introduction. The finding is consistent with young people’s overall views about drugs: they want better information in order to make informed choices.
Pill testing is not a radical idea. As a harm-reduction intervention provided by community and local governments, it’s available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France. But the legal status of the service is unclear and there is no formal government endorsement of the measure.
Nonetheless, its effectiveness is strongly grounded in evidence. There are good reasons why this country should introduce the measure.