The SSA’s Rob Calder and Natalie Davies describe drug safety testing.

Drug safety testing (also known as drug checking and pill testing) involves analysing illicit drugs to identify what they contain.

Accidental overdoses are often caused by people taking a drug that is stronger than expected or that contains an unexpected substance. Drug safety testing aims to prevent accidental overdoses, and other unintended adverse effects, by: (1) testing the substances to determine what drugs and other adulterants they contain – in some cases the strength of those drugs can also be identified; and (2) communicating the results of those tests to people who intend to use the drugs and/or to other stakeholders.

How do you deliver drug safety testing?

In most cases where drug safety testing has been delivered in the UK, local police have given their agreement for those services to run. This enables service users to attend without fear of being arrested for possession of drugs. In a single case the Home Office granted a licence for a pilot service.

Drug safety testing services must have clear policies and procedures in place for handling controlled substances in order to comply with the law (e.g. the Misuse of Drugs Act).

Is drug safety testing effective?

The complex settings in which drug safety testing services are delivered make it difficult to demonstrate the impact drug safety testing has on reducing drug-related deaths. Yet, in an inquest into six festival patron deaths in New South Wales (Australia) Deputy Coroner Harriet Grahame concluded: “There is evidence of behavioural change, with the potential to reduce harm or death.”

There is evidence from UK studies of behavioural changes from drug safety testing:

  • One in five festival-based drug safety testing service users (21%) chose to dispose of their drugs; the largest proportion (67%) of whom were people who found out their drugs were not what they thought they were.
  • Over a third (38%) of community-based drug safety testing service users said they would alert their friends and acquaintances about potentially harmful drugs, 35% said they would be more careful about mixing that drug with other substances, and 28% said they would take a smaller dose in the future.

Equality and diversity considerations

Drug safety testing is typically delivered at events such as festivals or community settings such as substance use treatment services. Each setting has the potential to attract a different type of person and to test different types of illicit drug. For example, while festivals may attract people who use drugs, such as MDMA, recreationally, treatment services may attract people who are dependent on drugs such as heroin.

Most of the public interest in drug safety testing has been due to drug-related deaths at music festivals; however, these account for very few of the total number of drug-related deaths.

More research is needed to identify whether drug safety testing services are effective for particularly marginalised and vulnerable people such as people who are homeless and sex workers.

Where can I read more?

  • Drug and Alcohol Findings analysed two key studies – one on the UK’s first onsite drug safety testing service, and the other on a pill-testing service trialled at an Australian music festival. The Australian study highlights the potential for the limitations of one service to be misconstrued as the limitations of drug safety testing in general.
  • In 2019, an inquest was held into the death of six patrons of music festivals in New South Wales (a state on the east coast of Australia). The Coroner heard extensive evidence about the range and efficacy of testing methods currently available.

by Rob Calder and Natalie Davies

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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