The state of Queensland, Australia, has announced that it will begin providing free drug-checking services. People will be able to bring in samples of what they’ve purchased as illicit drugs, have them analyzed and find out what’s really in them. This will inform individuals’ choices about whether to use what they have, and allow the wider public to be informed about high-risk supplies.
On February 25, Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath (Labor Party) announced that the state will set up both brick-and-mortar and mobile testing sites. The health ministry hasn’t yet provided details about where these sites will be, but plans to find a provider to partner with.
“Pill Testing is a harm reduction service where information and advice is provided to a person considering taking an illicit drug, encouraging choices that reduce overall drug use and the harms associated with taking illicit drugs,” D’Ath wrote on Twitter.
Resources that enable people to find out what’s in their drugs are an established way of reducing harms.
She also warned that the service “does not take away from police powers related to offences of illicit drug possession, supply and trafficking which remain the same.” However, people will not be arrested or reported to police while using the service.
Queensland, in northeastern Australia, is the country’s third most populous state, and includes the city of Brisbane. In 2020, 1,842 Australians lost their lives to overdose. Queensland has had fewer fatalities per capita than the country as a whole, but has still suffered over 200 deaths every year since 2007. Resources that enable people to find out what’s in their drugs—from fentanyl test strips to drug-checking services at music festivals—are an established way of reducing harms.
“Drug testers can also influence a drug taker’s behaviour, making them more likely to dispose of substances, decrease the amount they take, tell their peers and be more likely to seek help if they or others are experiencing adverse effects,” D’Ath said in a press release.
While Queensland is the first Australian state to take such a step, it follows—and was directly inspired by, according to D’Ath’s office—a successful drug-checking project in the capital city of Canberra. In July 2022, Pill Testing Australia (PTA) and Harm Reduction Australia launched a six-month pilot there, partnering with the Australian Capital Territory government (ACT). (PTA, a coalition of drug and health advocacy organizations, had earlier operated Australia’s first drug-checking service at a music festival, Groovin the Moo, in 2018.)
Described by VICE as the only site of its kind the country, the Canberra project tested hundreds of samples in its first six months. It used were fourier transform infra-red (FTIR) spectroscopy, ultra-performance liquid chromatography-photodiode array (UPLC-PDA), and fentanyl test strips. People brought in what they thought was ketamine, MDMA, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin to be tested.
In 55 percent of “ketamine” samples, no ketamine was found.
According to PTA’s report, a large proportion of drugs were found to be adulterated—and often not to include any of the drug the person thought they’d purchased. In 55 percent of “ketamine” samples, no ketamine was found—instead, cutting agents, other drugs or even “unknown” substances were present. For both MDMA and meth, 27 percent of samples contained none of the expected drug. With cocaine it was 25 percent, and with heroin 14 percent.
The project also recorded participants’ responses, and a majority (61 pecent) said that if their drug was not what they thought it was, they definitely would not use it. It’s a finding that refutes the arugment of opponents that drug-checking services encourage drug use.
The Canberra project has also been a gateway to education and support. Eighty percent of participants accepted some kind of drug or health “intervention,” including harm reduction education, and 30 people received naloxone, the opioid-overdose antidote. And the service has generally helped people to use drugs more safely: After receiving test results, people were more likely to use with a friend, keep naloxone handy, and not combine their drugs with other substances. The project is now being extended until at least July 2023.
Another aspect of drug checking that Queensland hopes to harness is its ability to inform the wider public of what local drug supplies look like at any given moment. So if, for example, drug-checkers notice a trend of fentanyl being found in a certain type of pill available in certain places, they can send out alerts to people in that area. A similar idea informs projects such as the SOAR Initiative in Ohio.
Along with Canberra, Queensland will now be a leader on this issue in Australia. Other states, like Victoria and New South Wales, have yet to follow suit—despite the evidence.
“This is no longer an evidence or medical question,” PTA clinical lead and Calvary Hospital emergency consultant David Caldicott told the Guardian. “This is almost exclusively an ideological or political decision that has to be made.”
Internationally, there has been other recent progress. In 2021, New Zealand became the first country in the world to explicitly and permanently legalize drug-checking services. Switzerland also allows the services. And the Netherlands hosts a drug-checking service that’s believed to be the world’s oldest—with government funding, it serves tens of thousands of people each year, and issues national “Red Alerts” when high-risk supplies are detected. In countries such as Portugal, the Uited Kingodom and the United States, meanwhile, drug-checking services operate in a legal “gray area.”
Photograph via National Institute on Drug Abuse