‘Bath salts’: Scary finds at Canberra’s pill testing site

Pills superimposed over a concert background for a story about pill testing
Images: Pexels

Scientists in Canberra have discovered three new party drugs at Australia’s only fixed pill testing site, and have called for more testing across Australia.

The ACT’s CanTEST site has analysed more than 1,700 drug samples since opening in July 2022.

Prof Malcolm McLeod, from the Australian National University, said a client submitted a substance they thought was a derivative of the ADHD drug Ritalin, a stimulant.

But lab testing found it was a new variant of cathinone, or bath salts, a dangerous family of chemicals that in some cases have proven lethal.

“Although there are a range of cathinone variants circulating in the community, finding a new one is obviously of concern because we don’t know how it will affect people or what the health consequences are,” Prof McLeod said.

The second substance, which the client thought was a type of ketamine, was found to be a new type of benzylpiperazine stimulant, a type of MDMA substitute.

“While derivatives of these stimulants first emerged in New Zealand in the early 2000s, we actually don’t know a lot about them,” Prof McLeod said.

“As for the third one, the client reported some uncertainty about the identity of the substance.

“They thought it was a cathinone drug, a stimulant that can have similar effects to amphetamines, but wanted to have it tested to avoid any nasty surprises.

“We later identified the drug as a new phenethylamine drug known as propylphenidine.

“Phenethylamines are a category of stimulant drugs that includes amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA.”

Half of drugs tested ‘not what the user expected’

The scientists have urged more pill testing across other states and territories, as well as a national network of sites.

In the first six months, CanTEST found more than half of the drugs tested at the clinic were not what the user expected.

“Drug checking services can not only change the behaviours of consumers but when done rigorously, can also identify totally novel drugs as they emerge, possibly even before they get a hold on local markets,” CanTEST’s Dr David Caldicott said.

“This is potentially of huge public health importance, not just to Canberra, but to the rest of the world.

“It’s time other states and territories follow the ACT’s lead and roll out similar services across the country.”

‘More pill testing means more lives saved’

Last year, the Queensland government followed the ACT’s lead and announced a pill-testing trial.

ACT Population Health Minister Emma Davidson said this week more pill testing sites across Australia “means more lives saved”.

“We’ve seen firsthand in Canberra that people will check their drugs when the option is available,” she said.

“Almost one in five people discard their drugs at the testing clinic when they learn what is in it.

“People take drugs and it is a health issue. Australians cannot make safer choices unless they have access to the right support and services such as pill testing.

“A national network will mean greater access for people to pill test and help minimise harm to the individual and their community.”

The federal health department said harm reduction strategies are a matter for the states and territories.

“Illicit drug use contains inherent risks and taking even a known substance can result in unintended harm,” a spokesperson told AAP.

“Drug checking may not be able to identify all components in an illicit substance and does not take into account any underlying health conditions a person may have.”

In October 2022, CanTEST in Canberra also discovered a new ketamine-like drug not seen in Australia before.

Later that year, the scientists potentially saved lives by triggering a public health alert after finding a highly dangerous opioid in pills falsely sold as oxycodone.

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Jordan Hirst
Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

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