Annie Smoker is a Drug and Alcohol nurse based in NSW. She shares her reasons for being an advocate for pill testing and harm minimisation strategies for substance use.
It is well known that “zero tolerance” policies to drugs don’t work. Our current laws and drug policy clearly don’t prevent drug use or the harms associated with them, and they are not based on evidence or the science of drugs. Whether we like it or not, people take drugs, and unfortunately the unknown contents of illegal pills made in backyard labs can indeed cause great harm.
Advocating for pill testing is not a question of “do I support drug use?”, but instead “will this policy make people safer?”
We can reduce harm to the community and our staff by advocating for pill testing in NSW. Here are four good reasons:
1) Pill testing changes behaviour.
Pill testing provides an opportunity for information to change users’ attitudes and behaviour towards drugs. Research from Austria shows half of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices, with two-thirds saying they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn off their friends if tests showed their pills could be harmful.
Evidence from overseas and pill testing trials here in Australia show users often ditch their pills once they know they contain harmful chemicals.
2) Pill testing has been shown to change the black market.
Research from existing programs shows that once users have access to information on the contents of their pills, particularly harmful products swiftly leave the market, and that over time fewer harmful ingredients are found, suggesting that drug testing does indeed improve safety for users.
3) Pill testing creates opportunities for support and intervention
Pill testing allows for education and engagement of the community, and allows an opportunity for volunteers and health workers to speak to users and refer them to other services if need be – a conversation which would never happen with a policeman holding a leash.
Pill testing is a chance for drug services to engage with recreational drug users that may be cultivating high-risk behaviours that lead towards acute drug problems. Zero tolerance policies provide no such opportunity for contact and follow-up with this population.
4) Pill testing can provide data and an early warning system about drugs
Pill testing allows researchers to capture long-term data about the actual substances present in the drug market, allowing evidence-based drug policy to be further refined. It may serve as an early warning system beyond immediate users if particularly dangerous substances are found. With new variants of chemical intoxicants appearing more rapidly, the usefulness of such a system will only grow in future.
Towards a safer future
Pill testing is not a new idea. Drug checking operates successfully around the world in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France. Australia is lauded for our progressive and evidence-based approach to harm minimisation and initiatives such as safe injection centres. But we are not ahead of the game on this. We need to catch up.
Doctors, lawyers, drug and alcohol professionals, and even families of people who have tragically died from drug overdose are all getting behind pill testing. It enjoys broad support among young people, with 82% of respondents aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 supporting its introduction.
Just because current laws stand in the way of pill testing, we should not be deterred from standing up for this policy that has a proven record of better outcomes for all. It is our responsibility as nurses and midwives to challenge unjust laws when they pertain to health.
We should actively promote pill testing and commence political lobbying. We will not be the first, we will simply be joining our voice to the many voices already supporting this sensible policy. We need to take a stand, as we have done many times before, to make our community safer.
Pill testing is not a magic wand. There will always be a risk of harm when consuming any substance. But we can no longer let government spokespeople blithely say “we’ve done all we can” to address drug-related deaths when they refuse to implement a policy that will work to reduce harm. I am a staunch advocate of pill testing, for good reason, and I invite all nurses and midwives to join me.
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