Pill testing is a highly controversial topic, and one of the factors lost in the myriad of emotions, ideologies and opinions surrounding the debate, is the science.
What are the options, what are the limits of the tests and what do the results mean?
Three main types of analysis for pill testing are reagent, fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC-MS).
As forms of analyses, each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The most sensitive method is LC-MS, while reagent testing and FT-IR are portable.
LC-MS involves separating the physical and chemical properties of the pill and identifying each component.
This is currently only available in a fixed site, such as a laboratory, since these instruments are very sensitive and can detect minute levels of a drug.
Using this method, analysts can unequivocally identify and quantitate (tell you how much) the drugs present in the pill.
Is this perfect?
Unlike CSI, this takes time and will still not identify every possible compound, but newly established methods can detect over 600 drugs – not cosmetics, not plastics, not fibres.
LC-MS can tell you what the drug is and how much is there.
Other methods including reagent testing rely on the user being able to differentiate between shades of a colour or a change in colour over a few seconds to identify the chemicals present in a pill.
The fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) method returns a score based on how closely it matches the library, but may only reveal the top three most abundant compounds.
If we cannot bring LC-MS to the festival site, could we consider bringing festival-goers to the LC-MS?
This has been done overseas with send-in services.
This allows a person to mail their drug to the lab and the lab texts or posts the results after analysis.
Potentially, this could also be a while-you-wait shop-front style service.
This type of testing should be accessible to everyone who wants it, not just for the people who use drugs at festivals but those who use drugs every weekend – the population we are not hearing about in the news.
We can perform testing in the time it takes to have a chat to a medico about using drugs and the results can then be discussed to help make a more informed decision.
Michelle Williams is a research toxicologist at the University of Newcastle.