On a Saturday evening in January 2012, Adriana Buccianti was at her home in Melbourne when she received a phone call. It was from her son Daniel, who was at a music festival.
“Mum, I have taken some very bad acid and everything is very odd here.”
The next morning she received another phone call: her only son was dead.
“Daniel made a mistake in taking a drug. It wasn’t what he thought it was, and it killed him,” she said.
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“I have lost a son, but the community has also lost someone. We will never know where life would have taken him and how much he could have contributed to society.”
Sadly, the story of Daniel’s death is a familiar one. In the past year alone there have been five drug-related deaths at Australian music festivals.
And it’s just a matter of time before it happens here.
Lots of students take drugs. A lot of the time we don’t know what’s in them: is this white powder MDMA, or is it methedrone? Or could it be methylone, or mephedrone? Or might it even be meth? Is this tab of blotter paper that I’m sticking on my tongue really LSD, or is it the more potent 25I-NBOMe? Is this batch of [insert colour here] [insert logo here] pills pure, or are they cut with P?
As any economist will tell you, the illegal nature of psychoactive substances creates a black market. Some humans will always demand drugs, and some humans will always find a way to supply them, ceteris paribus. The issue is that the black market by its very nature can’t be subject to government regulation. That means no quality control or safety testing, no accurate labelling, no attached warnings or information, no age restrictions, nothing.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the types of people who are drawn to manufacturing and selling drugs are quite likely to be unscrupulous (again, because it’s against the law). Free from accountability, they will happily sell bad drugs.
It’s also getting easier to source bad drugs. New analogues are synthesised constantly: novel psychoactive substances are being detected in the EU at a rate of two per week. The dark web is changing the market, cutting out the middle man and making it easier to import from overseas. Prohibition undermines a consumer’s ability to know what’s in the product they’re purchasing.
These dangerous new drugs have already hit our streets. Last September, an anonymous analysis of pills bought in Wellington suggested the presence of the lethal drug PMA (para-Methoxyamphetamine), known to some medical practitioners as ‘Doctor Death’.
Emergency department doctors are reporting a sharp rise in admissions from people who have taken NBOMe, the potentially fatal substance often sold as LSD. Wellington emergency medicine specialist and clinical toxicologist Dr Paul Quigley told Stuff.co.nz that “these people are coming in [to hospital] hallucinating, they’ve got high blood pressure, they’re delirious, they need to be held down by four or five security guards, and we’ve got no control over this.” This isn’t playing around. This is real. But unfortunately we tend to take a fairly laid back attitude to the potential dangers of drugs.
To quote an anonymous user: “We’re pretty blase about it, really. We know you hardly ever get pure MDMA anymore. You never really know for certain what you’re taking.” He goes on, “but if you or your friends have taken it before, and you’ve been all good, then you’re not going to say no.”
So what can we do?
One clear solution is to legalise and regulate the drugs, so that they can be sold safely.
Dr Quigley agrees. He made national headlines last year when he called for the legalisation and regulation of MDMA. “We could assess whether it’s safe, we could regulate it, we could earn income off it, we could restrict it … but at least it could be controlled.”
Ross Bell, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, also supported legalisation of MDMA. “If we regulated drugs that we knew more about and were less harmful, then you’d go a long way to mitigating the harms that exist in the black market,” he said.
Unfortunately, these calls fell on deaf ears; specifically John Key’s, who stated last year, “anything I’ve seen in relation to this drug has been deeply negative, so I can’t see why it would be [legalised].”
So prohibition is here to stay, for now at least. But there are still things that can be done to mitigate the risks.
This past summer, Wendy Allison and her small team of volunteers set themselves up at an unnamed NZ music festival. They weren’t allowed to advertise their service, so the sign on their gazebo simply read “Harm Reduction.” Curious festival-goers soon found out what Wendy and the team were up to. “We were offering to check people’s drugs to make sure they weren’t taking anything they didn’t intend to take.”
Consumer drug checking or ‘pill testing’ services use chemical reagents to detect the presence or absence of desired substances in illegal drug samples. It works like this: you scrape off a bit of your pill and an on-site expert applies a chemical reagent to it. The reaction it makes is then interpreted and you’re given the results. Your scraping might turn purple, say, indicating that what you have is most likely from the entactogen family of drugs (of which MDMA is a member). Equipped with this knowledge, you can then make a more informed decision about whether or not to take the drug.
You’re also given some info about the risks of the drugs identified, and anonymised information about the sample is shared with other drug users, A & E departments, and law enforcement. Drug checking provides authorities with a rare opportunity to communicate directly with drug users and make sure that they’re being safe.
Wendy’s testing showed two things. Firstly, most people weren’t taking what they thought they were. Only six of 22 samples purporting to be LSD tested positive for the drug. One third of MDMA samples weren’t true to label. And one unlucky punter had shelled out hundreds of dollars for some cocaine that turned out to be Ritalin.
The good news is that the testing also showed that people changed their behaviours when they were better informed. About half of the people who were told their sample was not what was expected opted not to take it. There are some downsides to drug checking, however. This type of reagent testing only provides an indication of what’s in the pill—it’s better at telling what definitely isn’t in it than what definitely is. You can get a more accurate reading by using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, but not many of us have one of those lying around.
Dr Quigley explains the other issue. “If you find that a certain pill contains PMA, you can say on a website, ‘don’t buy red Mitsubishi’s, break your dealer’s legs and run away, PMA kills!’ But if you post the information that a certain pill is 100 per cent MDMA, you’re indicating it’s probably safe—and at the same time you’re directly condoning pill use. And that makes the powers that be quite nervous.”
This fear of ‘condoning drug use’ is likely the reason that pill testing at festivals is technically illegal in New Zealand. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, festival organisers and nightclub owners are at risk of prosecution if they “knowingly permit a premises to be used in the commission of an offence against the Act.’ That’s why the festival that Wendy carried out checking at has to remain anonymous. So there’s some balancing to be done: do we offer drug checking services, knowing that it will potentially save someone’s life? Or do we keep the service banned in case it encourages drug use?
A parallel might be drawn to NZ’s needle exchange program. The service provides sterile needles to injecting drug users in order to help prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases. It could be argued that providing the needles ‘condones’ the drug use, but it could equally be argued that the fact that it saves lives means it’s worth it. That depends on your point of view. It seems to me that reducing the potential harms of drugs is more important than allowing people to die, and then using those deaths as a scare tactic to stop people using drugs.
Scare tactics aren’t working. Daniel died in 2012. And despite tougher enforcement and security at festivals in Australia, five people died last year. These were normal people who looked like us, had hopes and dreams like us, who loved and fought and danced and screwed like us. They might not be dead if drug checking was available. If we’re not willing to support a regulated legal market, we should at least help the buyer beware. Because unless we do, one of our mums will get the same phone call that Adrianna Buccianti did.
Cameron is a member of Vic Students For Sensible Drug Policy (VSSDP): a club made up of students who support an end to drug prohibition. VSSDP have drug checking kits available for use. If you or your friends want to be sure that your pills are safe, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org (we respect privacy and any communications will be strictly confidential). If you want to learn more, come to our event at the Law School Common room at 6.00pm on Wednesday May 18. See the drug checking kits in action and hear from Wendy Allison, who provided the drug checking service at a recent NZ festival.