In April, a drug-testing lab was set up at an Australian music festival, and now a report of the findings has been released. The results are disturbing, indicating more than half the drugs tested were not what their owners thought they were. Although festival pill testing is common in many countries, the detailed reporting of the results appears to be unprecedented, at least for an English-speaking country.
Australia has followed the common law-and-order approach to mind-altering drugs other than alcohol. When deaths occur at festivals they have been promoted as reasons to abstain rather than to create safer environments.
Recently, however, the Australian Capital Territory has undergone a change of heart, allowing the establishment of a testing lab within the medical precinct at the Canberra Grooving the Moo festival. Police searched patrons for drugs at the gates but agreed to leave visitors to the testing lab alone.
Preliminary announcements of the results, released shortly after the event, created shockwaves. Festival-goers who thought they were carrying MDMA (ecstasy) learned their drugs instead contained everything from caffeine or toothpaste to the more hallucinogenic MDA. MDMA was the dominant ingredient in less than half the samples, and often not present at all. Younger users were more frequently duped by their dealers.
Most disturbingly, one sample tested contained N-Ethylpentylone, while another revealed a chemical structure the testers had never seen before. According to the report; “[N-Ethylpentylone] is a dangerous drug that has recently emerged and has been responsible for mass casualty overdoses in New Zealand, and more recently deaths.” Many users abandoned their drugs near the test site.
The unrecognizable sample was probably a newly designed and largely untested drug. As study leader Dr David Caldicott from the Australian National University said to IFLScience; “You do not want to be the first person to try something new.”
Caldicott told IFLScience the percentage of misled consumers was much higher than in Western Europe, where 20-30 percent is typical.
Caldicott cautions against relying on a single festival to draw conclusions about the market for party drugs in Australia, let alone other countries without widespread testing. Nevertheless, he noted in the Netherlands, where drug testing has been common for decades, there is evidence to show the composition of party drugs is converging with dealer's claims, improving both safety and user experience.
Besides the opportunity to warn users before they take drugs they don't intend to, Caldicott said trials like this can be invaluable to health authorities, alerting them to the presence of new designer drugs long before they would otherwise find out. Even when the drugs tested are what their owners expect, Caldicott noted the opportunity for a medical professional to discuss safe usage with the user can prevent overdoses. Where drugs are pure, testing can prevent overdoses where users, anticipating the drug had been cut, might have otherwise taken extra.
Testing was conducted using Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy, a process in which a laser is shone on the drug sample and the spectrum produced is compared with the fingerprints of known molecules. Although Caldicott considers it a “robust method”, it was also chosen for its relatively low cost compared to mass spectrometry, which he hopes might eventually be adopted if pill testing becomes more widespread in Australia.
Whether that occurs remains to be seen. The Northern Territory has expressed interest in following Canberra's lead. Most state governments, however, prefer to use sniffer dogs at festival gates, putting up with the inevitable deaths when unrecognized drugs slip through, rather than be seen as “soft on drugs” by not arresting anyone in the vicinity of a pill-testing center.