Why you shouldn’t trust infra-red pill testing

A TOXICOLOGIST has questioned the reliability of infra-red pill testing technology, warning it is less likely to detect synthetic drugs or measure potency.

Four deaths in as many months at dance raves across the state have reignited the debate on pill testing.

Testing in which a machine shines infra-red light on a sample to identify the drug and any ­contaminants is being pushed as a way of stopping drug deaths at music festivals.

But Andrew Leibie from Safework Laboratories said new designer drugs known as "bath salts" were harder to trace.

"They're much more dangerous, they're much more toxic than our more traditional drugs like ecstasy, and they're very cheap," he said.

Toxicologist Andrew Leibie has questioned the reliability of infra-red pill testing.
Toxicologist Andrew Leibie has questioned the reliability of infra-red pill testing.

"There are scientific limitations to what can be achieved. How ­inaccurate do you want the test to be when it's potentially a life or death situation?"

Public sector experts wanted a scientific debate on methodology but feared speaking out because the issue is such a "political hot potato", he said.

Criminal solicitor and harm minimisation advocate Paul Edmonds says the issue opens up a "huge can of worms" for civil and criminal liability.

He said pill testers may be sued if a person reacts badly to a drug that had effectively been given the green light.

Punters must sign indemnity waivers before getting their drugs tested, but those might not hold up in court if they are already under the influence and therefore not able to give informed consent, he said.

Mr Edmonds says drugs should either be decriminalised or entire festival venues should be declared exempt from prosecution for personal drug possession like safe injecting rooms.

"Then there's no grey area, it's clear cut," he said.

Mr Liebie said public sector experts want a debate on the methodology but “political hot potato”. Picture: Shaney/Balcombe
Mr Liebie said public sector experts want a debate on the methodology but “political hot potato”. Picture: Shaney/Balcombe

"This sort of half-pregnant idea just seems to be fraught with all sorts of difficulties."

Festivals often have 100-metre 'tolerance zones' around testing facilities where cops turn a blind eye, but patrolling officers would still be put in a conflicting position while punters could be exposed to a higher risk of prosecution, the national police union says.

"Police still have a duty of care, it's a very difficult proposition," Police Federation of Australia chief executive Scott Weber said.

There are also ethical dilemmas for testers who can't confiscate illicit substances despite advising revellers it's not safe to take them, Mr Leibie said.

"You're telling this to a drunk 18-year-old kid at midnight at a music festival. If they take it back are they going to resell it? Are they going to stick it in their pocket and forget which one is the bad one?" he said.

Dr Alex Wodak admits pill testing is not a “silver bullet” but says something must be done to prevent deaths.
Dr Alex Wodak admits pill testing is not a “silver bullet” but says something must be done to prevent deaths.

"I don't know that we want to be experimenting on this with our young people when the potential outcome is somebody dies."

Instead of quick and simple testing carried out in festival tents, Mr Leibie suggested revellers could get precise drug results anonymously at labs with more sophisticated equipment - a process commonly used in Europe but which takes several days.

The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Dr Alex Wodak AM admits pill testing isn't a "silver bullet".

"But saturation policing and sniffer dogs doesn't detect 100 per cent of drugs, it doesn't stop 100 per cent of drug use. People are still dying," he said.

Dr Wodak, who launched the country's first medically-supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross, called for the regulation of drugs so it can be treated as a public health issue.

"If we can't keep drugs out of maximum security prisons, how the hell can you keep drugs out of a youth music event?" Dr Wodak said.

"The next objective is at least trying to save the lives of those people."



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