Canberra CanTEST service changing drug behaviours

17 Jul 2023

More than half of the drugs tested at CanTEST, Australia's first and only pill testing service, were not what the user expected, according to a new report that examined the centre's first six months of operation.

An independent evaluation of CanTEST, led by The Australian National University (ANU), found one-in-10 samples tested were discarded on-site once the client learnt what was in them.

The report's authors have endorsed the health and drug checking facility, noting the important service it provides. It's prompted the ACT Government to fund CanTEST until December 2024, as the facility this week marks its one-year anniversary.

CanTEST, located in Canberra's CBD, tested more than 600 substances in the first six months, generating new information about the types of drugs circulating in the ACT.

Lead author of the report, ANU Associate Professor Anna Olsen, said the service provides chemical analysis of drugs and health advice, allowing people to make more informed decisions about their drug use.

"CanTEST provides critical information about drug contents to service users and the wider community," she said.

"The evaluation shows that 70 per cent of users had never discussed their drug use with a health professional before visiting CanTEST. The service is reaching a unique group of people who use drugs.

"We also found that two-thirds of service users had never tested drugs before in Australia prior to visiting CanTEST.

"CanTEST is helping to change peoples' drug behaviours. Service data shows that some clients decide not to take the drugs after they receive information about them, or they use the harm reduction advice to reduce their risks if they do go on to take the substance.

"For example, when the substance was not what the user expected, one-in-three clients reported they would not use the drug."

CanTEST delivered more than 1,000 health interventions to service users in the first six months of operation, including harm reduction, overdose prevention, mental health counselling and other general health advice.

Support for the service is strong. Almost all clients (98 per cent) said they would recommend the service to others, while 94 per cent of participants rated the service 10 out of 10.

Since opening its doors in July 2022, the service has detected a range of common illicit substances including cocaine, heroin, ketamine, MDMA and methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth or 'ice'.

CanTEST is also producing scientific information about new psychoactive substances. Earlier this year the service issued its first public health alert, after chemists detected a potent and potentially deadly synthetic opioid in yellow pills that were falsely sold as oxycodone.

The report outlines several recommendations to improve CanTEST, including employing more analytical chemists, increasing surge capacity for when events are held in the ACT, and reviewing the facility's opening hours and days of operation.

The full report is available here.

CanTEST is a collaboration between Directions Health Services, CAMHA, Pill Testing Australia and ACT Health, with chemical analysis and advice provided by scientists from ANU. CanTEST is not exclusively a drug checking service; it also offers consultations to discuss alcohol, general health, sexual health and mental health concerns. 

The service is open every Thursday and Friday and is located inside the City Community Health Centre on 1 Moore Street in Canberra's CBD. 

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