Why Reporters Shouldn’t Speculate on the Cause of Drug-Related Incidents and how Pill Testing can Help

On the 15th of January, Steve Lillebuen reported in The Age  that more than 20 people partying in the Chapel Street district were taken to hospital over the weekend due to a “bad batch of Ecstasy” that may have led to at least one death. Mr Lillebuen was quick to speculate about the contents of the drugs stating that it was “believed to be MDMA laced with GHB”. Had Mr Lillebuen contacted an Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) expert, it would have become apparent that this statement makes no sense. While GHB, usually liquid in form, can come in a solid form, it is hygroscopic (i.e., gel like) which would make it difficult to put into capsules since the capsules would melt.

Herald Sun reporter, Peter Hall, was also quick to speculate on what caused the incident in Chapel Street, reporting it was “believed to be linked to a bad batch of MDMA”. Ecstasy may or may not contain MDMA, but the drug is either MDMA or not. While there have been a number of deaths in the UK and elsewhere due to Ecstasy containing high levels of MDMA, this does not appear to have been the case here. Later a 30-year-old man, as reported by David Hurely and Cassie Zervos in the Herald Sun, “appeared at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday charged with trafficking and possession of MDMA”.

At the time of reporting nobody actually knew what was in the pills that he was in possession of, or whether the same drugs he was caught with were associated with the death and hospitalisations over the weekend. We still don’t ‘officially’ know what was in those tablets. It is unhelpful for the media to speculate about the contents of drug-related incidents because it can lead to misinformation, stigmatisation of people who use drugs and further distress relatives and loved ones grieving their loss.  

Notable in its absence was reporting of a known solution to these overdoses. Rather Hurely and Zervos noted that police were “reluctant to provide specific details on what the dangerous pills look like”. Such information could have been helpful in ensuring others did not consume any remaining samples from this particularly toxic batch of drugs. Perhaps more concerning is a leaked memo dated 27/1/17 from Victoria Police that indicated they knew what was in the contents of the capsules, yet Victoria Police did not release this information to the public.

It would have been more helpful for the police, the defendant and the public to know what was actually in the capsules in a timely manner. With the ever growing number of drugs that can be passed off as Ecstasy, it is imperative that drug testing (testing of pills, powders, crystals, blotters, etc.) be introduced in Australia. As so eloquently stated by Dr Alex Wodak (see video below), ‘there’s not a bad batch of Ecstasy going around, there’s a bad batch of police ministers who are blocking the introduction of such measures’.

Fortunately, concerned members of the community were able to ascertain the contents of the pills and alert the public – 3 weeks later. A sample was sent to Spain where it was analysed and found to contain a small amount of MDMA along with 25-C-NBOMe and 4-Fluromethamphetamine. This is consistent with the leaked police memo. NBOMe drugs are highly toxic in low doses, so it is important that people are aware that they are turning up in Ecstasy capsules. NBOMe was the same drug that was identified in the capsule that caused a death and number of hospitalisations on the Gold Coast that was initially blamed as being Flakka (for a full review of what Flakka is and the Gold Coast story, see our previous article: Flakka on the Gold Cast and Schoolies should be Scared: Or Should They?

If the people in Chapel St had the opportunity to test what was in the drugs they were taking, chances are they would have decided not to take them if they had known they contained the dangerous NBOMe – and those overdoses would never have happened. While Australian researchers are able to access labs in Australia under strict conditions, they cannot be accessed by the general public to determine the contents of their drugs. In contrast, anybody can send a sample of their drugs to Spain to get them tested, but it costs money. Energy Control kindly offered to analyse this sample for free in the interests of harm reduction, and they are to be commended for their efforts. However, people need the opportunity to find out what is in their drugs in a timely fashion so they are able avoid the worst batches and prevent further deaths. Three weeks is too long to for most people to find out the contents of their drugs. Australia needs to introduce pill testing before there are any more deaths.

It’s up to reporters to make sure they are not making the situation worse by speculating on the contents of drugs, and equally to report on effective solutions.

Dr Stephen Bright, Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute

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