Underground Pill Testing Part 1
Enpsychedelia admin: Every Sunday from 2pm we discuss a wide variety of drug issues on 3CR. We are passionate about representing the broader story, without condoning or condemning people’s choices. A concerned member of the community has written this article and sent it through, asking for us to publish it anonymously.
I’ve found the festival scene in Australia to be one of the most life enhancing and positive communities in my life. In the dancing, the conversation, the play, the music and of most of all in the community, love and connection. I’ve found inspiration to live authentically and embrace my true self. In this crazy world of beautiful freaks I’ve found the support and compassion to grow and express myself fully. In the intimate space created in this abstract and alternative world, I’ve worked through difficult times and supported others through their journeys. Sometimes I go for the introspection, sometimes for the knowledge or the intimacy. Other times I just like to get loose and party with my crew. Drugs are sometimes part of enhancing this experience, whether it’s through deepening a sense of intimacy or just shaking some ass.
A shadow of tragedy has fallen over many events in recent years, as opening ceremonies acknowledge those that we’ve lost. I remember at Rainbow Serpent Festival when Adriana Buccianti spoke, the year after her son Daniel passed away there. As you looked around at the faces of people hearing her message to “look after each other,” there was such a profound concern and compassion. Around the country the deaths didn’t stop though, caring for your mates didn’t stop risky and adulterated drugs making their way into the market. There were more opening ceremonies acknowledging more tragedies and the community began to respond.
As the conversation became mainstream a consistent call for drug checking services to be established to deal with misrepresented or adulterated substances spread through the media and into the political realm. Governments refused to move, holding the line saying that, “this proves that drugs are dangerous and people shouldn’t do them,” or “we shouldn’t empower criminal behaviour.” People thus continued to die and the frustration grew as public health officials and some politicians continued to call for change.
This isn’t a piece to argue for change of our drug laws, although they do need to be changed. It’s not to argue about the legitimacy of experiences enhanced by psychoactive substances, though they may well be the case. This is about the health, welfare and existence of communities I love. This is about the people left behind when someone dies in a way that could have been prevented. This is about communities becoming empowered to look after themselves, as best they can. It’s a piece about what you can do, while we wait for society and politics to change. It’s a story about underground drug checking.
As the 2016/17 festival season approached many in the drug advocacy and harm reduction organisations and the broader community felt a sense of trepidation. Was this going to be another season of tragedy? It didn’t take long, tragically, and a dramatic event occurred in the Gold Coast where several people were transported after experiencing extreme hallucinations and behaving strangely. One of the young men Riki Stephens died in hospital a week later. The incident prompted the usual calls from police to, “not take these drugs because you don’t know what’s in them” and harm reduction advocates to solve the problem of poor information about substance contents. The summer rolled on with the issue circling around again every time there was an incident.
Then Melbourne had a critical incident where 3 people died and many more had to be transported to the emergency room. The community scrambled for information. What the fuck just happened? Information started to come in and people shared what they knew. People were dying and whatever they took was still out there, photos and descriptions starting getting shared around the internet and eventually a sample was sent off to a lab overseas and the contents confirmed as a mixture of substances; 4 –Flouroamphetamine, 25C Nbome and a small amount of MDMA. Many people were outraged when an internal police document was leaked, detailing what the substance was, for emergency services to be prepared for a response. Why the community wasn’t provided this information invites the question of whether the police are fulfilling their duty of care to prioritising the health and welfare of the whole community.
This is all the background for a decision to perform ‘underground pill testing’ at some events this summer. Not because I was the most experienced, or the most knowledgeable, or because I was the first one to have the idea but because I was there. While the value and necessity of doing this kind of thing was obvious, there was also a sense of absurdity, surely there were professionals for this kind of thing. People had done this before, back in the early 2000’s there were different crews using reagent kits at parties until policies and police responses cracked down, sending reagent testing back into the corners of the scene. The more informed and responsible people in the community had their kits at home or at their camp, but a habit of regularly testing drugs was not the norm. In the last couple of years, with more deaths and conversations about drug checking internet searches for reagent kits and sales have increased. Despite this, anyone that has volunteered at festivals in a harm reduction or chill space knows that requests for “pill testing” are frequent and persistent.
So I ordered a set of four reagents, mandelin, marquis, mecke and simons and headed off to the first festival. We were only half prepared and half trained, essentially a few inspired novices determined to provide a service that the community is calling for and show that we could offer a basic service and have an effect on risk and harm from within the festival community.
Part 2 of this blog will cover what we did at the festival, what we learned walking around people’s camps and offering to test their drugs for them and a summary of results.
Part 3 will delve a little more into the results: what did the kits tell us about the drugs that people had, how well did it relate to what they thought they had and what did they do with the information.
This is being published anonymously due to concerns that acknowledging this work publicly might have consequences for myself and those that joined or supported this undertaking. This would essentially be arresting people for practising good public health, but that is the perverse nature of our drug laws. To maintain the anonymity of the events where we conducted this experiment, we shall refer to them as festival A and festival B. It would be great to publicly thank people that assisted or supported what we have done, but they are content to see this happen. We collected data on what we tested, what we found and what people said they were going to do with that information. It is hoped that releasing this will show that this practice has a tangible public health benefit, to show that individuals or groups can help keep themselves, their crew and the people around them safe. We hope that eventually this will lead to a policy change, embracing holistic and evidence-based harm reduction in the festival setting. We can do better ourselves, within our communities, but there is only so far we can go without government resources and support.
At festival A we tested 138 samples and at festival B we tested 48. Despite some public perceptions the majority of people who choose to use drugs in a festival setting are interested in partying safely. They were grateful that someone would take the time to wander around the camps testing things for people. As far as we could tell with basic reagent testing most of the substances tested were what they appeared to be. When something was detected that was not what it was presumed to be nearly every person chose to discard it. Some of the samples at festival A showed strange results and although we haven’t confirmed it yet, we believe they were the same substance implicated in the incident focused around Chapel street back in January. Every person that had this substance took the advice to not take it and most likely warned their camp-mates, possibly preventing a public health crisis.
Check out Part 2 of this series for how we conducted ‘underground pill testing’ this summer.