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Is Pill Testing at Music Festivals likely to save lives?

At a recent Music Festival in Melbourne 8 people were taken to hospital with a dangerous reaction to Ecstasy (MDMA).

There are now claims that pill testing would have prevented this. Sadly the facts indicate that this is not the case.

So what causes ecstasy deaths?

Most ecstasy deaths involve hyperthermia where the body heats above 40 degrees Celsius, causing organ shutdown and death.

Many die from idiosyncratic vulnerabilities to MDMA (ecstasy) where some individuals’ inability to metabolise ecstasy appears to cause their deaths. As with Anna Wood, Australia’s first ecstasy death in 1995, she bought ecstasy tablets along with four friends but only she died. There were no deadly impurities in her tablet, nor other drugs mixed with the MDMA. It was ecstasy alone that killed Anna.

Further, it was ecstasy alone that was directly responsible for 23% of all Australian MDMA-related deaths between July 2000 and June 2005. It was also responsible for 14% of all MDMA-related deaths between July 2000 and November 2018.

Sadly, many die from very small doses of ecstasy. For instance New Zealand’s first fatality from ecstasy in 1998 had blood concentrations showing that the victim only had a fraction of a pill.

Ecstasy taken with other legal and illegal drugs, where ecstasy is consumed along with alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines etc caused 48% of the 392 MDMA related deaths between 2000 and 2018.

Alcohol is known to interfere with the metabolism of MDMA, leading to higher MDMA blood concentrations.

Ice, like ecstasy, causes hyperthermia, and when taken together can cause deaths from its complications. Most deaths are from users taking ecstasy with other legal or illegal drugs.

Accidents resulting from ecstasy intoxication 29% of all MDMA-related deaths between 2000 and 2018 were from fatal accidents deemed by coroners to be caused by ecstasy.

What everyone needs to know –

  • Unpredictability of ambient temperature and social context makes ecstasy use entirely unpredictable

  • This may explain why ‘experienced’ ecstasy users die taking identical pills on differing occasions.

  • Pill testing does not identify these causes

  • Pill testing will not be able to identify whether you have an individual vulnerability to ecstasy – it is not a property found in a pill.

  • Likewise polydrug use – using ecstasy with other legal or illegal drugs – is not a property found in a pill.

  • Accidents from intoxication cannot be identified in a pill.

  • Higher ambient temperatures and vibrant social situations are not properties of a pill. None of these real causes will be identified by pill testing.

The problem with pill testing is that it will make young people think that it makes ecstasy safer to use. It doesn’t. At the very least, 95% of pill deaths in Australia between 2000 and 2018 were from ecstasy itself, either as a direct or contributing cause of death.


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