Last updated January 7, 2019 at 8:36 pm
Pill testing that shows ecstasy users contaminants in their pills would make them reconsider future use.
In news that comes as zero surprise to anyone except, seemingly, those who make drug policy decisions, pill testing has been shown once again to potentially be an effective harm minimisation strategy.
A new study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, which surveyed people as they entered nightclubs and music festivals in New York, has shown that over half of them said they would be less likely to use ecstasy again if they learned their pills contained methamphetamines or bath salts.
While decades of research have shown the extent of risks to health from MDMA – which are largely dependent on dose and the context and include overheating and serotonin syndrome – it is known that those risks are sharply increased by the presence of unexpected contaminants, and the unknown quantities of those drugs. The unexpected use of a psychedelic contaminant could result in psychosis-like effects, drugs with longer lives can result in overdoses due to re-dosing too soon, and highly potent substances (such as fentanyl) could lead to overdose.
In particular, synthetic cathinones (bath salts) have resulted in deaths due to overheating and heart attack, and over 20,000 emergency room visits in the US in 2011 alone.
Drugs that are prohibited are supplied through unregulated channels lack quality control and are often mixed with these and other drugs. In the past 10 years the number of psychoactive drugs found in MDMA preparations have increased sharply, say the researchers.
Earlier studies have shown that most users want to know the contents and dose of their drugs in order to minimise their risk. However pill testing services are legally questionable – it wasn’t until April this year that an Australian festival acquired state approval to offer pill testing.
The two researchers, one from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, set out to find out whether ecstasy users were testing their own pills, and whether the results of either those tests or tests done by professionals would change their use of ecstasy.
Half of the New Yorkers in the survey suspected their ecstasy had contained drugs other than MDMA, with half of those either finding out or suspecting their pills had contained meth.
Interestingly, when it comes to using pill testing – either offered as a service or done themselves with a kit available online – people who had attended or graduated college were less likely to use it than people who had a high school education or less.
When presented with a hypothetical situation where pill testing results came back positive for meth or bath salts, more than half (54.8%) said they would be less likely to use ecstasy again. This, the authors say, shows that learning their ecstasy is contaminated may reduce future use or encourage users to engage more in harm reduction methods such as pill testing, and help inform users about the harmful, unexpected effects of party drugs.
Many doctors and drug experts agree that pill testing is not only an immediate harm reduction measure, but also allows a valuable opportunity to have discussions about longer-term harm reduction.
At the first and so far only sanctioned pill testing in Australia at April’s Groove in the Moo, people who had their drugs tested also had a conversation with a drug and alcohol counsellor and the risks of the substances identified, and ways they could mitigate those risks (such as taking a smaller dose or not taking the drug at all). Before leaving the area people having their drugs tested also passed an ‘amnesty bin’ where they could dispose of their drugs if they wished. At no time during the entire process was the person told that the drugs they were taking were “safe.”
Evidence from European drug testing programs shows that people’s drug taking behaviour does change following pill testing – taking less or disposing of their drugs entirely, the same changes in behaviour predicted by the New York study.
Any claims that pill testing would also encourage and increase the amount of drug taking are also not backed by research.
With pill testing services operating in over 20 countries, plus these new results and previous research showing their value and effectiveness, the authors of the new paper suggest there are multiple blueprints that can be used for implementing these programs more widely.