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15 December 2019

An article published in Tasmania’s Mercury is an example of misinformation being peddled by pill testing supporters to the media, with the island’s peak ATOD body misquoting UK statistics to push a bogus rationale for pill testing.

In the article Tasmania ATDC CEO Alison Lai asserts that UK ecstasy deaths have been increasing  while ecstasy use has been decreasing, leading her to support the notion spread by the UK’s Dr Fiona Measham, of the pill testing outfit called “the Loop”, that higher purity pills are causing more deaths than might be expected.  She then warns Tasmanians to beware the higher purity pills, implying the need for pill testing, which she lauds for its ‘success’ in the UK.

The reality is very different.  Statistics from England and Wales show that the introduction of pill testing did not produce any reduction in deaths as promised, nor did it appear to change the behaviour of users by getting some to quit using ecstasy, as also forecast by its advocates.  While European countries have poor to non-existent statistics on ecstasy deaths, the UK keeps up-to-date figures.  Pill testing operated by “the Loop” began in 2013 and by 2016 began expanding into 12 music festivals with government assent.   Ecstasy use increased by 76% amongst 16-24 year olds (see Table 1.06), the most prolific ecstasy users, between 2013 and 2017/18.  In 2013 there were 43 ecstasy deaths, more than doubling to 92 deaths in 2018.

It is important to recognise that UK deaths include every age group but ecstasy use statistics do not include 13 – 15 year olds, an age group in which there have been frequent deaths (see thisthisthis and this), which imply significant increases in lower high-school use in the last few years, more than explaining the doubling of deaths in the UK by 2018.  Correlations of increased use and deaths mostly preclude the rationale that deaths are caused by increased purity.

The truth is that scientific studies have shown that ecstasy overdose is rare, a fact admitted by other leading harm reduction organisations worldwide, and ecstasy users frequently take two or three pills at the same time, with some users ingesting 15-25 pills in a session (note that there is no tolerance to the fatal effects of ecstasy, only a tolerance to the psychoactive effect here described).  The science also shows users ingesting up to 77 times as much ecstasy as has killed many others, yet still being very much alive.  And reports from the UK show the same expected pattern for deaths, where friends took the same number of high-dose pills but only one died, the same as happened with Anna Wood, Australia’s first ecstasy death, where four other friends took the same moderate-dose pills without hospitalisation or death.

Drug Free Australia is concerned that pill testing will only increase deaths here as in the UK.  With ecstasy itself being responsible for all 392 MDMA-related deaths between 2001 and 2016 (see p 18), with not one from dangerous impurities or other dangerous drugs cut with a pill’s MDMA, Pill Testing Australia’s failure to dissuade even one single ecstasy user from discarding their pill immediately in the 2019 Canberra pill testing trial shows that the intervention fails at the most basic level of keeping pills out of the mouths of users in the first place, something that policing does alternately succeed at doing.