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Demand so high for Canberra's pill-testing service that 27 people were turned away ahead of Spilt Milk music festival

Billie* wasn't sure about the contents or purity of the MDMA she purchased so she decided to see exactly what was in it.

The 24-year-old Canberra local procured the drugs ahead of Spilt Milk, one of the city's largest music festivals.

"I think it's really important for people to be able to test what they've got because, obviously, pills aren't regulated, so you have no idea what you're getting," she said.

CanTEST, the ACT government-backed drug-checking service in Canberra, is in its fourth month of a six-month pilot program, intended to reduce drug-related harm.

The drug testing clinic is usually open for three hours each Thursday and Friday, but, ahead of the music festival, decided to extend its opening hours.

In the three sessions following CanTEST's announcement of extended testing, researchers tested a total of 106 samples — almost double the number of samples collected by the service in its first month.

One of those 106 samples was Billie's.

"So you roll up, and they greet you and you pop your phones and any recording devices you might have in a little locker," Billie said.

"And then you sort of go through a waiver and they [ask], 'What do you think you've got? Where'd you get it?' and if you're planning on taking it, and if that might change depending on the results you get.

"And then they take you upstairs to the little lab where they test them."

Billie and her friends were planning on taking MDMA, also referred to as ecstasy or molly, and she handed her sample over to the CanTEST team.

In Billie's case, the testing revealed the purity of the MDMA was quite high and she said that allowed her to make an informed decision about how to use it at the festival.

"So I sort of split it in half, and then took half and then the other half later on just to make sure it wasn't too much," she said.

But she said, for others, the results may have been different.

"If you get your pills tested, and it's not what you think it is, they offer to get rid of it for you safely as well."

Testing site had to turn people away due to demand

Brownyn Hendry, director of Directions Health Service, which operates CanTEST, said the substances collected and tested ahead of Spilt Milk were the "usual variability in strength/purity" and that there were not any significant "red flags" or any substances they had not discovered previously.

But she said CanTEST did have to turn 27 people away on Friday night, as it could not test any more substances in its remaining opening hours.

Ms Hendry said she was disappointed that some clients could not get their drugs tested, but overall the reaction to the pilot program had been positive.

"We will be hoping to increase our operating hours further in the lead-up to other large festivals or events," Ms Hendry said.

"Our experience has shown that the young people attending the festival — both local Canberrans and those from interstate — appreciated the opportunity to test the substances they were considering consuming and were also mindful of the harm minimisation advice provided."

Last month, the health service discovered an entirely new type of the drug with a similar profile to that of ketamine, dubbed CanKET by the chemists who discovered it.

CanTEST has also reported a number of clients discarding their drugs once learning of their true contents in the service's past few months of operation.

A 'golden' opportunity

In years past, the topic of on-site pill testing for festivals in the ACT and across Australia has been a contentious and political one.

Chris Gough, executive director of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation & Advocacy, or CAHMA, said the issue in the territory was two-pronged — one side being misinformation and uninformed community members, and the other being insurance.

"I think it's a highly politicised issue and there's a lot of naysaying from community members who could potentially not understand what pill testing actually is," he said.

Earlier this year well-known music festival Groovin the Moo said it was devastated not to provide a pill-testing service at the Canberra festival after its insurer pulled out.

"The government really needs to step up on this one, because insurance is getting harder and harder to find for harm-reduction services," Mr Gough said.

He added that as "progressive" as the ACT was in its drug policy, further support for festivals should be considered.

"I really cannot fathom why it is that a service that has been proven to save lives wouldn't be a golden opportunity for investors to get involved with," he said.

There are already organisations, such as DanceWize in NSW and Victoria, that provide peer support at festivals for those that might be partaking in drugs.

Mr Gough believed a program like that could go hand in hand with ACT's already established drug harm-minimisation measures. 

"It'd be a fantastic thing to have in the ACT to push all of these harm-reduction strategies, which we know work, and to complement the fixed-site pill testing," he said.

'It's kind of a taboo topic'

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the government supported making pill testing available at festival sites in the territory.

But she said there were restrictions because of what the government's insurance authority was able to cover, and encouraged the insurance industry to "get on board" by backing pill-testing providers for festival-based sites.

Spilt Milk declined to comment on the reasons for their decision not to offer on-site pill testing.

For Billie, she doesn't believe the existence of a fixed-site pill-testing clinic in her city encourages drug use and said she had learned a lot during her experience at CanTEST.

"I don't think the fact that you can get [substances] tested is going to make someone who's never wanted to do drugs before suddenly be like, 'I'm going to do drugs'," she said.

"It's kind of a bit of a taboo topic because I've never really had a sort of open and non-judgemental conversation about drugs with adults and the [CanTEST staff] were really nice.

"They sort of explained, obviously, no drug is safe, and we can't guarantee it's completely safe, but here are your results."

*Billie's name has been changed for anonymity.

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