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January 25, 2023

E-e-e-e-ecstacy: Push for local pill testing

As South Australia nears the summit of our summer calendar of sweltering music and arts festivals, one Greens politician is encouraging the State Government to consider setting up a trial clinic that would test drugs and ensure party peoples’ safety.

  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Main image: Unsplash

In October last year, Greens MLC Robert Simms went to Canberra. Not because the former Adelaide city councillor had work to do in Federal Parliament, or because he wanted to marvel at the city’s many roundabouts, but because he wanted to see how the inner machinations behind a recently-established, brazen trial in the city was faring.

In July last year, the ACT Government unveiled the country’s first fixed-site drug checking service called CanTEST: Health and Drug Checking Service.

Set up under the proviso it would initially run for six months, and in partnership with a consortium of harm minimisation and testing organisations, with funding by the government, the service would provide chemical analysis of drugs and pills, as well as consultations about sexual health, mental health and general wellbeing delivered by nurses.

The clinic’s modus operandi is simple: you come in with a drug and get it tested. From there you decide whether you keep it or ditch it.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith lauded the program before it officially started, describing it as “progressive” and a nation leader. She said it would, most importantly, reduce drug-related harm. “This Australian-first program will help people who use drugs to better understand or avoid unknown and potentially dangerous substances in illicit drugs,” she said in a press release at the time.

Since then, the ACT Government extended the pilot to operate until August 2023 due to “great community response,” the Health Minister said on 13 January 2023.

Robert, a South Australian politician, wanted to see how the CanTEST clinic worked. When CityMag asks about first impressions, he says: “look — it was excellent.”

“It’s free, it’s confidential, and as well as offering a drug testing service, it also offers an STI (sexually transmitted infection) testing service.

“And one of the things that really struck me about it is often when we talk about pill testing, people wrongly assume that if someone visits a pill testing clinic, and a pill is tested, and it’s determined that the drug is what they think it is, that they’re kind of just told, ‘Oh well, off you go, on your way.’ That’s certainly not the case.”


CanTEST publishes monthly snapshots. The most recent release is from 21 November—20 December 2022, which is month five of the trial. This publication says two out of 145 samples were voluntarily discarded by individuals after their drugs — spanning ketamine to methamphetamine to MDMA and cocaine — were tested, which is the lowest discard rate of any of the snapshots so far.

Overall, roughly 15 per cent of samples were ditched following testing, with people binning their drugs peaking between 21 October—20 November 2022, when music festival Spilt Milk visited Canberra and the clinic offered extended trading hours. To focus in on this time, as an example of what the clinic is capable of, 13 out of 139 samples were cast away with the samples ranging in purity.

Fundamentally, this shouldn’t be an ideological thing. It should be about what can we do to save peoples’ lives?
—Robert Simms

We zoomed in on the results from 21 October—20 November 2022, looking at the illicit substance cocaine. The stimulant clocked in at <5 per cent—43 per cent purity, with 11 out of 19 samples containing actual cocaine. But alarmingly two samples found traces of boric acid: a caustic white chemical that kills insects when ingested. Another sample contained urea: a fertiliser and feed supplement, which also works as the starting material for both plastics and drugs.

Although the overall data suggests individuals are most likely not going to toss their drugs after they’re tested, Robert says professionals working within the clinic also try to communicate the risks of taking these substances.

“They also talk to them about, ‘well, if you are going to take it, what are the plans you’ve got in place? ’Are you going to be with a friend? Are you with someone you trust? Have you got a safe way to get home? Is your phone properly charged?’.”

Robert says the service is efficient because it employs a top-down, harm minimisation approach. It’s a confidential service, with phones not permitted on the premises. “There’s (also) an acceptance from law enforcement that they’re not going to be apprehending people who are coming out of the facility or anything like that, either,” he says.

The Upper House politician does not have current plans to introduce a Parliamentary mechanism allowing pill testing, but is encouraging the State Government to “really engage” with the ACT Government in terms of the drug-testing clinic and other possibilities. But, if this fails, “I’d be quite happy to do something,” Robert says.

“Whether that be in the form of some sort of legislation or another approach, I’d need to look at those options.”

CityMag asked South Australia’s Health Minister, Chris Picton, about whether drug testing was on his radar. In an emailed statement, he says SA Labor was consistent before the election in “not supporting” pill testing.

“We released and are now implementing a comprehensive policy regarding illicit drugs that involves more rehabilitation beds and more support to families of drug users,” he says.

Robert says South Australia’s “tough” law and order approach to drugs isn’t working. What is needed is something revolutionary.

“Fundamentally, this shouldn’t be an ideological thing. It should be about what can we do to save people’s lives?”

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