VAADA in the News

Drug Checking (a.k.a. Pill Testing)

ABC News

13 January 2024

Advocates are pointing to success stories of pill testing in Canberra and New Zealand to inspire state and federal governments to follow suit.

9News Australia

24 October 2023

There are urgent calls this morning for pill testing to be legalised in Victoria. New data revealing psycho-active drug deaths have spiked by more than 1,000 per cent, since 2017.

Geelong Advertiser

Will Keech

24 October 2023

A group of Geelong health organisations have backed a push for drug checking services to be introduced in Victoria to help combat dangerous synthetic substances.

A trio of Geelong health organisations have backed a push for drug checking services to be introduced in Victoria to help combat dangerous synthetic substances.

Villamanta, Meli and Windana are among the 77 organisations calling on the Victorian government to implement a drug checking and public early warning system to reduce harms relating to novel psychoactive substances (NPS) in line with four recommendations of the Coroners Court of Victoria.

According to the statement, released on Monday, NPS contributed to the deaths of 47 people in 2021-22, a figure that has risen “rapidly’ in the last five years.

Windana rehabilitation services chief executive officer Andrea McLeod said she was really concerned about the number of deaths linked to overdoses.

“What we’ve seen unfold over the last few years, coupled with the Coroner’s Court findings have led us towards a pointy end, we’re really concerned about a trend that we are seeing,” Ms McLeod said.

“We’ve got an increase in fatalities that are related to new and more potent synthetic drugs, and we know from overseas studies and the overseas experience, that this is just going to keep continuing.

“While it might not be here in Australia yet, it’s a matter of time, our concern is how we are going to respond.

“We strongly believe that drug checking saves lives, that’s the bottom line.”

In 2021, Coroner Paresa Spanos called for drug testing services to be introduced following an investigation into the harrowing deaths of five young men.

During the investigation, Ms Spanos consulted Dr Monica Barratt, a Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University with expertise in drug harm reduction and NPS, who recommended a public drug checking service where samples are rapidly analysed for content and purity.

Under the drug checking model, people provide samples of drugs they are intending to use so they can be chemically analysed.

They are given test results back so they know what is in the drug and associated risks.

This means drug users can be made aware if drugs they have purchased have been cut with anything, or if it is more potent than advertised.

Police aren’t involved with the process, and it isn’t intended to promote drug use, but rather increase awareness.

The system wouldn’t be an Australian first, with the ACT and Queensland already having drug testing systems, which according to Ms Mcleod, have been successes.

“The response in Canberra has been really positive, and what the information would tell us is similar in Queensland,” Ms McLeod said.

“We know here from information that we’ve gathered from public responses that in Geelong, 56 per cent of the local community would support drug checking.”

It comes a week after a woman who led the campaign for the Richmond safe injecting room says a Geelong site should be considered, as other leaders share their opinion on the proposal.

The Standard

Monique Patterson

24 October 2023

South-west residents have had bad reactions to novel psychoactive substances (NPS) because they were unaware of the ingredients, according to WRAD Health.

This and fears for the safety of people who purchase substances without knowing what is in them has prompted the organisation to join 77 community agencies calling for the introduction of a drug checking system to save lives in Victoria.

The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA) in collaboration with RMIT University has released a statement supported by 77 health and community agencies highlighting the dire need for a drug checking and enhanced public alert system to be implemented in Victoria.

VAADA initiated the campaign to call on the state government to adopt the unequivocal recommendation of the Coroners Court of Victoria to create a drug checking service for the state, believing this will save lives and provide information on emerging harmful substances prior to consumption.

The campaign is in response to a surge in fatal overdose of NPS, which mimic established substances but are often more harmful.

WRAD Health acting chief executive officer Mark Powell said the proposed testing service aligned with WRAD Health’s focus on harm reduction.

“Unfortunately, people can purchase substances online or from dealers but not really know what they’re getting,” Mr Powell said.

“Obviously safest use is no use but we live in a world where people have access to these substances and are going to experiment, so we want to make that as safe as possible.”

He said WRAD Health was aware of anecdotal reports about local people having bad reactions to NPS because they weren’t aware of the ingredients.

Mr Powell said drug testing services at events or as a standalone service would allow people to find out what is in their drugs while helping them make more informed decisions.

“NPS contributed to the deaths of 47 people in 2021-22 which is a shocking statistic,” he said.

“The worst part of it is that many of these deaths could have been prevented.”

Testing also creates opportunities for drug education. “We know that every time someone tests a substance, services have an opportunity to talk to that person about their substance use,” Mr Powell said.

A testing process can also lead to broader public warnings.

“If bad ingredients are detected, we can be proactive and send out harm reduction messages to the community,” Mr Powell said.

3AW Radio

Neil Mitchell

23 October 2023

A Coalition including the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, RMIT University, and 77 health and community agencies have called on the new Allan government to introduce a “drug checking” system in Melbourne.

Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University and drug policy specialist, Dr. Monica Barratt, told Neil Mitchell while “we can’t save all lives”, this is a “really simple and pragmatic approach”.

“Drug checking is one of many different things we could be doing in the drug and alcohol space to save lives,” Dr Barratt said.

SBS News Australia

Ewa Staszewska

23 October 2023

Health experts are pushing one state to roll out walk-in facilities where people can have cocaine, MDMA, heroin and other substances tested.

KEY POINTS
  • 78 health organisations and experts are calling for the Victorian government to establish drug-checking sites.
  • Studies show the facilities are working to reduce harm in 28 countries.
  • Queensland is set to launch two sites in 2024.

Debbie Warner spent four days in an intensive care unit wondering if her son would die.

The 26-year-old thought he took MDMA, the active ingredient in the party drug ecstasy, but the substance it was laced with caused him to overdose.

“He’d taken it before and never had a problem. But this one he took, he ended up in hospital, in ICU,” she told SBS News.

“Not knowing if he was going to live, or if he did, whether he was going to have brain damage … the psychological trauma for the whole family was just horrendous.”

Her son, who survived but now struggles with long-term PTSD, said if there had been a drug testing site in Victoria he would have used it.

The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA), with the support of 77 health and community organisations, published a statement on Monday pushing for the Victorian government to implement a drug-checking service and early warning system in the state.

They argue the service is needed to combat a surge in drug-related deaths due to unintended consumption of new psychoactive substances (NPS).

NPS mimic the effects of illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and LSD, often with severe consequences.

VAADA program manager Scott Drummond said the government needed to create the service to save lives, as recommended four times by the Coroner’s Court of Victoria in six years.

“Sadly, there is still more work to do to save lives – with a simple next step being to develop a drug checking system, like ACT and Queensland,” he said.

What are drug-checking services?

Drug-checking services refer to a mix of fixed and mobile facilities, where Australians could anonymously test their substances for both the content and dosage of drugs.

This would flag the makeup of a drug, including unexpected substances or higher-than-usual doses to proactively reduce the number of fatal incidents.

Once the test is complete, a healthcare worker would talk users through the results, educating them about the substances and how to minimise harm if they still choose to take them.

“It feels like a no-brainer to me, especially after what we went through as a family,” Debbie said, stating the “deaths are so preventable”.

The data gathered would also be fed into an early warning system, which would provide community members with real-time warnings about dangerous substances circulating.

RMIT University drug policy expert Monica Barratt said real-time information on changing drug markets would be a game-changer for preventing overdoses in the community.

“They inform us of new harmful substances before someone takes them, which are currently discovered through pathology tests taken in emergency departments or morgues,” she said.

“If we can prevent overdoses from happening in the first place, then we can ease the pressures on our emergency health system for all Victorians.”

Looking to other parts of Australia

The ACT currently runs a drug checking service after they were successful in reducing harm during a trial at a Canberra music festival five years ago.

An independent evaluation of the trial found all service users who were informed that their substances contained n-ethyl-pentylone, an NPS with serious risks, discarded the drugs.

Queensland will be the first state to launch a drug-checking service in 2024.

They will be operating two confidential walk-in drug-checking sites available to people of any age, including under-18s, without being reported to police.

Mobile sites will also be located at music festivals and sporting events, offering information about harm reduction and bins to discard drugs they do not want.

What’s being done overseas?

A global report into harm reduction services around the world verified drug checking services have been rolled out in at least 28 countries.

In 2021, New Zealand passed legislation that made drug-checking services legal after they were proven to intercept potentially dangerous substances before they were consumed.

The Conversation

Monica Barratt and Isabelle Volpe

23 October 2023

Many of the harms people experience from using illegal drugs are a result of unregulated supply. Drugs may be contaminated, or completely substituted with something unexpected. They may also be of variable and unknown dosage or strength.

Any of these factors can and do lead to overdoses. That’s why 77 health and community organisations are urging the Victorian government to implement drug checking services. These could reduce overdose deaths, and provide an early warning system to flag any unusually dangerous substances in circulation.

The Victorian statement adds to similar calls in other Australian jurisdictions. Notably, in New South Wales, a Labor MP last week broke rank with his party to voice his support for the implementation of drug checking services.

What’s the problem?

In the past 15 years, the number of new psychoactive substances detected in drug markets has increased dramatically around the world. It’s easier for suppliers to circumvent laws that prohibit more traditional drugs (such as cocaine, heroin, MDMA or methamphetamine) by producing newer synthetic drugs. These drugs are also often cheaper to produce.

They then get added to or sold as other more established drugs. This means people don’t always know what they’re taking, or how strong it is.

According to the Coroners Court of Victoria, novel substances were detected in three deaths in 2017-18. This figure has risen significantly over the past five years, to 47 deaths in 2021-22.

Escalating deaths involving novel substances are being identified nationally. For example, there have been 40 deaths involving novel benzodiazepines in Australia since 2015.

While harder to track, unexpectedly strong substances have been implicated in further deaths. In 2019, the NSW Coroner’s Court investigated six deaths at music festivals resulting from consumption of unusually high-dose MDMA capsules. Last month, Victoria’s coroner investigated a death that similarly followed consumption of an unexpectedly high-dose MDMA tablet.

Meanwhile, synthetic opioid drugs are causing an epidemic of drug fatalities in North America. Some of these novel opioids have recently been detected in Australia, including a new class called nitazenes, which have been identified in the ACTNSWVictoria, and South Australia.

What is drug checking?

Often called “pill testing” in Australia, the term drug checking reflects that these services are inclusive of multiple drug forms (for example, powders and liquids in addition to pills) as well as multiple drug types (for example, cocaine, ketamine, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA).

Drug checking services can be at a permanent location or mobile (for example, on-site at venues and festivals). People visit these facilities to find out the content and strength of drugs they plan to use, including whether they contain unexpected substances or higher-than-usual doses.

Service users also have the opportunity to discuss the test results in a meeting with a health-care worker, in a conversation about their broader drug use and health.

How does it help?

A recent systematic review analysing 90 studies found that drug checking services positively influenced the behaviour of people who use drugs.

In two recent studies conducted in the UK and Portugal, most service users (86% in Portugal, 69% in the UK) who received test results indicating that the drug was different than expected didn’t consume the substance. About half of service users (50% in Portugal, 59% in the UK) whose test results indicated that their drugs were stronger than expected took a smaller dose.

Drug checking service data also provides real-time information about the status of local drug markets. Alerts can be published to rapidly warn people if an unusually dangerous substance is circulating. For example, the ACT drug checking service CanTEST has so far published six community alerts alongside monthly drug market snapshot reports.

Responding to critiques

One argument levelled against drug checking is that such services provide a “shine of safety” to drug use. But, as noted by an established drug checking service in The Netherlands, services never provide an endorsement of quality. Instead, they warn people how unpredictable drug markets can be by providing credible and relevant information.

Similarly, evidence doesn’t support claims that the availability of drug checking services leads to increased drug use. A recent Australian study that surveyed festival-goers about drug checking scenarios found the existence of a drug checking service wouldn’t increase intention to use ecstasy.

What’s happening elsewhere?

Drug checking services are now operating in at least 28 countries, having expanded significantly around the world in recent years.

In 2021, New Zealand passed legislation to make drug checking services fully legal.

Australia’s experience so far with government-sanctioned drug checking has included fixed-site and mobile drug checking trials in Canberra, and recently-announced approval for drug checking services to commence in Queensland. An interim report on a pilot in Canberra’s city centre supports the continuation and development of the service.

Support is growing

In Australia, the implementation of drug checking services has been recommended by numerous government inquiries and coronial inquests, including the 2018 Parliament of Victoria Inquiry into Drug Law Reform and the 2019 inquest into the death of six patrons at NSW music festivals.

In terms of public support, a nationally representative survey found that in 2019, 63% of Australians supported drug checking. Some 22% were opposed while 15% were unsure or didn’t answer.

The Victorian statement released today demonstrates support from a wide range of social and community organisations. These include professional societies representing medical and pharmaceutical sectors, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

Implementing drug checking will help prevent further overdose deaths that result from unregulated drug supplies.

ABC Radio Melbourne

Rafael Epstein

23 October 2023

77 health and community organisations are calling for the Victorian government to establish drug checking services to quell rising deaths linked to the consumption of ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS).

RMIT drug policy expert Monica Barratt said the service would allow people to check drugs for their contents and strength, which would save lives.

“We’ve looked at the evidence on this and we don’t see that it leads to more people [taking drugs],” Dr Barratt told Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne.

“In fact, what we see is when someone finds out that they have an unexpected substance, almost all people won’t take that substance.”

Herald Sun

Mitch Clarke

17th July 2023

Authorities are being called on to open testing services urgently with a rise in more harmful synthetic – but cheaper – drugs on the market.

The state government should establish drug checking facilities to counter a steep rise in drugs circulating in the community that contain ­potentially deadly synthetic substances, experts say.

RMIT senior research fellow Monica Barratt said adulterated drugs cooked up in labs were often cheaper to make than the drugs they mimicked.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs have been added to opioids, and are often added to or sold as heroin with devastating death tolls in North America,” Dr Barratt said.

“The reality of supply and demand for drugs means these adulterations and substitutions are going to continue to happen, especially as novel substances are typically more profitable.”

In 2021, the coroner recommended the state government adopt a checking system to tell users what substances their recreational drugs contained.

Dr Barratt, who gave evidence at the coronial inquest that led to the recommendation, said tests could quickly assess the content of drugs.

“Knowing whether drug samples contain unexpected novel synthetic substances gives the community and the government vital information it currently lacks,” she said.

“Drug checking services never tell someone that drugs are safe, they do the opposite. They demonstrate the variable quality across our drug markets and show people that they cannot simply trust claims made by sellers.”

Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association chief executive Sam Biondo said drug checking facilities were needed ­urgently to forewarn users.

The facilities, if established, would be different to proposals for pill testing at festivals.

Mr Biondo said reporting in the Herald Sun’s recent Narcos series on the global drug trade had highlighted that dangerous synthetic drugs were increasingly common.

Analysis by the coroners court showed 47 people died from overdoses of novel psychoactive drugs in 2021-22, rising from just three in 2017-18.

“As it stands in Victoria, we discover hazardous substances when people overdose, at morgues, or police seizures,” Mr Biondo said. “When we heard about a large fentanyl seizure last year, it had taken six months before the public was informed of this risk. We need something in real time, not six months down the track.

“We need to know about new hazardous substances hitting our shores before people have taken them.”

A spokeswoman said the state government took a health-led approach to alcohol and drug use and its $372m for alcohol and drug services in 2023-24 funded two initiatives that functioned as an “early warning system” to identify emerging harms.

Herald Sun

Mitch Clarke

17 July 2023

The Andrews government is being urged to follow the lead of New Zealand and open up drug testing services to combat ­potentially deadly synthetic substances.

The Victorian government needs to launch its own drug checking services, with experts warning the state is “lagging behind” other jurisdictions.

The calls come as a new report – released on Monday – found the trial of Australia’s first drug checking service, CanTEST in Canberra, helped 437 people reduce their risk of an overdose or poisoning through drug tests.

Of the more than 600 samples examined, just over half were actually found to be the drug that service users had expected.

The Herald Sun last month revealed experts had called for a Victorian-based service to counter a steep rise in drugs circulating in the community that contain ­potentially deadly synthetic substances.

In 2021, the coroner recommended the Victorian government adopt a checking system to tell users what substances their recreational drugs contained.

RMIT senior research fellow Monica Barratt, who gave evidence at the coronial inquest that led to the recommendation, said Victoria is “beginning to lag behind other jurisdictions”.

“Canberra, and our near neighbours, New Zealand, have successful drug checking services, and Queensland has announced it will support and fund drug checking in the near future,” she said.

“Instead, we find out about local drug trends after the harms have occurred: through analysis of overdose presentations at hospitals, at the morgue or through police seizures.”

RMIT senior lecturer in criminology and justice studies Peta Malins said the report highlighted Australia’s “unpredictable and unregulated” illicit drug markets.

“Victorian Coronial data released last month shows we now have the highest tally of deaths involving novel psychoactive substances on record,” Dr Malins said.

“How high does this number have to be before the government takes action?”

Acting Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association chief Scott Drummond said the services facilitate brief interventions and information to people who may regularly use drugs on how to reduce associated harm.

“These services not only provide the life saving benefit of providing individuals and the community information about hazardous substances, but by changing substance use behaviour they reduce the demand on our overburdened and stretched acute health services such as emergency departments,” he said.

Medically Supervised Injecting Service / Opioid Replacement Therapy

ABC Radio Melbourne

Richelle Hunt and Brett Worthington

10 July 2023

Recent data shows that Victoria has the higher rates of heroin consumption than other Australian states. In this edition of The Conversation Hour the team explores how to remedy better access to treatment and how much the issue of stigma underpins the issue.

The Guardian

Benita Kolovos

1 May 2023

Exclusive: Proposed amendment would make North Richmond facility permanent and widen eligibility criteria

The Victorian Greens will introduce changes to a government bill in a push to make it easier to open more safe injecting rooms and allow greater access for the “most vulnerable and marginalised” drug users.

The government’s drugs, poisons and controlled substances amendment (medically supervised injecting centre) bill 2023, which will make the currently facility in North Richmond permanent, will be debated and voted on in the upper house when parliament resumes this week.

A trial at the North Richmond facility has saved an estimated 63 lives and safely managed 6,000 overdoses since it opened in 2018.

The Greens say the amendments to the bill are based on the recommendations of an independent review into the facility by the public health researcher John Ryan, which the government relied on when making its decision to make it permanent.

They include changing the wording to allow for more than one medically supervised injecting room to be licensed at the same time.

The Greens upper house MP Aiv Puglielli pointed to a long-awaited report of the former police commissioner Ken Lay, due to be released next month, into the possible location for a second facility in Melbourne’s CBD and said the amendments could prevent the government stalling on opening another facility.

“We’re concerned that if we don’t take this opportunity now with this legislation to get safe injecting right in Victoria, that we will see the government walk away from future rooms in our state,” Puglielli said.

The Greens are also seeking to adjust the eligibility criteria for using the North Richmond safe injecting room, which currently locks out pregnant women, people under the age of 18 and those subject to court orders. People who need assistance injecting drugs would also be granted access to the facility under the change.

The Ryan review – as well as a 2020 review chaired by Prof Margaret Hamilton – recommended expanding eligibility criteria, but the government has emphatically ruled this out.

The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association’s executive officer, Sam Biondo, said those currently excluded from using the North Richmond facility were some of the “most vulnerable and marginalised individuals in the community”.

“For the life of me I can’t understand why they want to place people at high danger. Through denying these genuinely isolated, marginalised individuals [access], we’re actually losing the opportunity to refer them to other support,” he said.

“Whether that’s treatment, housing, mental health, dental – it’s all the things that make a positive difference to their life and we could find a pivot point for them through that service.”

Biondo said people exiting the criminal justice system were also particularly at risk of overdose.

“Their tolerance level is low, there’s the shock to their system of venturing back into the community and the potential to use in quantities they were previously using which would be sufficient to kill them,” he said.

In 2021 a Victorian coroner recommended the government overhaul the way it supports people who use drugs when they are imprisoned and after their release, following the 2014 overdose death of a man a day after he left the prison system.

The coroner said in the year the man died, there were 220 heroin-involved overdose deaths recorded in Victoria. Of these, more than 40% had spent time in prison and 10 died within seven days of release.

Meanwhile, the opposition and the Liberal Democrats (LDP) are also seeking changes to the bill.

The LDP wants the facility to be able to prescribe the opioid hydromorphone, or Dilaudid, to drug users who haven’t had success with existing treatments such as methadone.

The opposition, meanwhile, wants to ensure safe injecting rooms are located at least 250m from any education or care services. It follows complaints by some community members that the North Richmond facility is currently located next door to a primary school.

The Coalition’s amendments would also seek to boost transparency by requiring regular external reviews every four years, and the release of annual reports.

The opposition is also expected to use question time in parliament this week to grill the government after the release of an anti-corruption watchdog investigation during the Easter break.

The investigation into a $1.4m grant awarded to a union, dubbed Operation Daintree, cleared Andrews and his ministers of corruption but criticised the “increasing influence” of advisers and the centralisation of power in the premier’s office.

Other News

9News Sports

Lachlan Harper

18 October 2023

Scott Drummond, Program Manager at VAADA highlights the impact of stigma relating to drug use; Stigma creates a barrier to seeking out help and further, being cut off from employment can make circumstances worse. Whether its AFL or any workplace, a persons’ wellbeing should be paramount in responding to AOD use.