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Half of regular ecstasy users are pill testing

More than four in 10 people who regularly use ecstasy and one in 10 people who regularly inject drugs have ever tested their drugs, mostly by using personal testing kits.

The Drug Trends program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) has surveyed people who regularly use illicit drugs about drug checking the contents of their illicit drugs, and their illicit drug use at Australian music festivals.

“These findings reinforce previous research that people who use illicit drugs want information about the content of their substances,” says Program Lead, Amy Peacock.

“However, qualitative information obtained from personal test kits, like the presence or absence of a drug, is limited. Information about the range of substances contained and the dose is necessary to inform harm reduction behaviours to reduce risks from high-dose MDMA or adulterants.”

People are using pill testing at music festivals

Among people who regularly use ecstasy, 68% had attended a music festival in the last year. Nearly all (93%) of people sampled who had regularly used ecstasy in the past six months and had also been to festival reported using illicit drugs at the last festival they attended.

Pill testing facilities at the Groovin the Moo 2019 festival in Canberra. Credit: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

“It is important to note that these findings are from a sample of people who regularly use ecstasy, and do not represent all music festival attendees,” Peacock says.

The survey also found that most of the sampled people who had attended a festival were aware of on-site medical services. They were also aware of police and security measures such as bag checks and patrols.

A small number were aware of drug information and harm reduction services.

“Music festivals represent a unique setting to engage with people who may not otherwise come into contact with services offering harm reduction information about illicit drug use. There is an opportunity to increase access to, and awareness of, these services at festivals,” Peacock says.

Cocaine and Ket on the increase

As well as looking at pill testing, the survey also assessed other drug habits. The Drug Trends program conducts annual interviews with people who regularly use ecstasy and other stimulants for the Ecstasy and related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) and people who regularly inject drugs for the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS).

The EDRS interviewed 797 people who regularly use ecstasy and other stimulants. Participants were recruited from all capital cities and were predominantly young males who completed a post-school qualification.

Peacock says that key findings from the survey show a significant increase in the use of cocaine and ketamine when compared to 2018.

“The largest percentage of participants since the commencement of monitoring reported recent use of cocaine (67%) and more than two in five people (41%) reported recent use of ketamine. However, most people in this sample who had used these substances reported infrequent use in the last six months.”

Increase in opioid overdose training

Despite the decline in use, morphine is still the opioid of choice for non-prescribed use.

In 2019, the national sample who had recently used non-prescribed morphine in the past six months was 18%, compared to 22% in 2018.

The 2019 IDRS also interviewed 902 people who regularly inject drugs, recruited from all capital cities of Australia. Participants were predominantly male with a mean age of 44.

“Major findings from the 2019 IDRS report include an increase in the percentage who reported being trained in how to administer naloxone, a drug available over-the-counter in pharmacies that can be used to reverse opioid overdose,” says Peacock.

Three in 10 participants had been trained in administering the drug. Almost one in 20 participants had actually been resuscitated by someone who had participated in naloxone training.

“This is a positive sign, but also highlights the opportunity to increase this percentage further, and make sure people who are at risk of having or witnessing an overdose have access to naloxone,” says Peacock.

Homemade pipes and injection of crystal meth is on the rise

Of the 2019 IDRS sample, nearly half the participants reported using methamphetamine weekly.

19% of participants who had smoked crystal methamphetamine in the past six months had difficulty accessing a commercial ball pipe. Of these people, 63% had injected instead and 44% used a homemade pipe.

“Difficulties accessing commercial ball pipes lead to greater frequency of injection and use of homemade pipes among this sample,” says Peacock.

“The use of homemade pipes can result in various harms including cuts, burns, blisters and open sores inside the mouth.”

While the percentage of use in some drugs has risen, Peacock says that surveys like this are crucial for recognising drug problems in Australia.

“NDARC has coordinated the Drug Trends Program since 1996 and it’s ongoing monitoring systems are key to identifying emerging problems in substance use in Australia.”

The full NDARC Drug Trends Report can be read here.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.