BRIEF for Journalists
Our Vision: To support and educate young people, their families and communities to prevent the damage caused by drugs
THE SCIENCE – PILL TESTING OFFERS NO PROTECTION
When the science on MDMA-related deaths is assessed, rather than resorting to unscientific surveys of user’s self-reported intentions, pill testing can demonstrate no to very little protective effect against ecstasy-related deaths.
Statistics from England and Wales show that the introduction of pill testing did not produce any reduction in deaths as promised, nor did it appear to change the behaviour of users by getting some to quit using ecstasy, as also forecast by its promoters. While European countries have poor to non-existent statistics on ecstasy deaths, the UK keeps up-to-date figures. Pill testing operated by “the Loop” began in 2013 and by 2016 began expanding into 12 music festivals with government assent. In 2013 ecstasy was used by 1.2% of the population, rising significantly to 1.7% by 2017/18 (see p 7). In 2013 there were 43 ecstasy deaths, more than doubling to 92 deaths in 2018.
The explanation for this failure lies in the science on MDMA-related deaths in Australia, where we are the only country worldwide to carefully examine past toxicology reports for ecstasy deaths. A recent study of 392 ecstasy deaths in Australia (see p 18) between 2001 and 2016 found no deaths from impurities or contaminants in pills. There was no record of deaths from bad batches where other deadly drugs were cut with the MDMA in a pill. Both were central rationales for introducing pill testing, but neither caused Australian deaths in the study. And because scientific studies have shown that ecstasy overdose is rare it is clear that the third rationale regarding overdoses from increasing purity is scientifically not yet demonstrated.
The actual causes of ecstasy deaths are due to, in some cases, an individual vulnerability to MDMA, even a small fraction of a pill. This was what happened with Australia’s first ecstasy death in 1995. Anna Wood took an identical pill to her four friends but only she died. The majority of deaths are from individuals using ecstasy with alcohol, cocaine or amphetamines, and where the toxic effects of ecstasy are amplified by higher ambient temperatures and differing social situations which make it unpredictable to use. None of these triggers are properties of an ecstasy pill, and pill testing merely looks in all the wrong places.
Worst of all is that in the Canberra pill testing trials, when there obviously were batches of ecstasy pills containing N-ethyl pentylone sold around Canberra in both 2018 and 2019 which didn’t hospitalise even one user, pill testers were red-coding these pills but greenlighting via a white slip of paper (see page 11) all pills found with ecstasy, despite ecstasy being the main cause of Australian deaths. Furthermore there was no evidence of counsellors dissuading any user from taking their tested pill, with not one user recorded discarding their ecstasy, evidencing zero behaviour change.
In Tasmania Drug Free Australia is condemning the support of pill testing by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Council. The Council has joined Harm Reduction Australia’s pill testing push which comes from an organisation which is a key part of Australia’s drug legalisation lobby. It seeks to legalise recreational cannabis use in Australia. Given there is no scientific support for pill testing, which normalises drug use, pill testing would likely be a useful strategy towards a drug legalisation end. However, so long as drugs are still illegal in Australia it is improper for an organisation that is meant to support the rule of law and promote the prevention of drug use to be promoting the normalising agendas of an organisation trying to legalise drugs. According to the Federal government’s triennial Household Surveys, 97% of Australians do not approve the regular use of ecstasy and 92% do not support its legalisation.
Harm Reduction Australia’s specious campaign to establish an intervention that provides little to no protective effect for ecstasy users will continue to mislead young Australians, broaden the pool of novice users and lead to more needless deaths. Drug Free Australia has urged each Australian Premier to initiate media campaigns educating young Australians in the actual causes of ecstasy deaths.
RESEARCH DIRECTOR, Drug Free Australia
For Evidence Based Responses check our the following