Meet The Machine That Gives The DNA Of A Pill Right Down To The Type Of Paint
In a crowded room in Sydney, pill testing advocates unveiled the machine used to analyse drugs, and explained patiently how their process would work to stop overdoses and save lives.
For a technology that has inspired fierce political debates, countless newspaper column inches and hours of radio and TV conversation, the machine is tiny. It's called a Fourier Transform infrared spectrophotometer, or FTIR, and it's about the size of a small desktop printer.
It costs up to $50,000 and compares samples -- such as those given to pill testing workers in a music festival environment -- against a database of 26,000 samples.
Dr David Caldicott, an emergency medicine consultant specialist and clinical lead for Pill Testing Australia, said the FTIR gives results so precise that analysts can determine everything from active ingredients to fillers to the brand of paint used to colour the substance.
"This is a medical procedure," Caldicott, also an academic at Australian National University and Canberra University, said on Tuesday.
"We're medical. We're trying to prevent people from being hurt."
Caldicott was speaking at a media event at the headquarters of the Ted Noffs Foundation, the famous and celebrated Australian non-profit group for young people. He appeared alongside Gino Vumbaca, president of Harm Reduction Australia, and Noffs Foundation CEO Matt Noffs.
The group outlined how pill testing schemes, far from giving a so-called "green light" to potential drug users, could be a powerful tool in discouraging drug use, with trained health workers and peer support staff actively encouraging people to reconsider consuming illicit substances.
The event was titled 'this is how we will reduce the death toll - with a medical service' and aimed to dispel some of the myths around pill testing, and address some of the fears raised by politicians in recent weeks and months.
It comes after five young people died in drug-related incidents at NSW music festivals in just six months.
At the exact same moment, in a court across town, the state coroner held a directions hearing ahead of inquests into the deaths. It was revealed the people who had died had variously consumed as few as one and as many as nine MDMA pills.
"We're trying to prevent overdoses," Caldicott said.
It comes as debate heats up over pill testing, with Berejiklian under mounting pressure to allow a trial of the scheme at a music festival. At a federal level, both PM Scott Morrison and Labor leader Bill Shorten have opposed the idea too.
This is in spite of a growing growing list of medical and drug experts -- including the Australian Medical Association, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the National Drug And Alcohol Research Centre and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and even the families of drug death victims -- backing calls for pill testing.
Caldicott explained pill testing, far from condoning drug use, is actually aimed at encouraging people to ditch their drugs.
While a substance is being analysed by the FTIR, Caldicott said health professionals and licensed post-doctoral university chemists have an opportunity to educate people about drug use. This window of time could be up to 20 minutes.
"This is the opportunity to talk with consumers about how pills aren't adequately mixed, that there's not a lot of quality control in the process. None of this is reassuring to the consumer about what they're about to consume," Caldicott explained.
He added information gathered in pill testing programs, including results of drugs analysed, are shared with law enforcement. Caldicott claimed it was "invaluable information about the market" for police looking to combat drug crime.
Jessie Murray, of harm reduction group DanceWize Australia, said people using pill testing are told of the dangers of drug use, as well as being educated on how factors like weather and mental health can influence a drug's effect.
"We're starting every conversation with the rule that it is never safe to take an illicit drug," she said.
"But if you choose to take something, there are some things you need to know and every drug comes with a different risk profile."
Murray said staff would ask users what other drugs they have consumed, what medication they have taken, what their mental health was like, and gave advice on how hot weather could affect health.
"We get people to think deeply about what they're trying to achieve... and why they think it's a good idea," she said, comparing the process to drug education programs in schools.
Caldicott strongly disagreed with claims that allowing pill testing might lead to more drug overdoses, as has been seen in recent festival deaths.
"We're not trying to treat overdoses with pill testing. We're trying to prevent overdoses," he said.
"There are people who are going to consume drugs regardless. There are people who don't want to use drugs at all. The middle group who we are concerned about are people whose opinions we can change. That's our target group and that's the bulk of people attending music festivals."