Canberra chemists identify three new recreational drugs after mystery substances turn up at Australia’s only fixed pill-testing site
- Chemists expose three previously unknown recreational drugs after CanTEST clients put forward mystery substances
- The drugs were wholly different to what the user had believed
- Pill-testing advocates say the service is showing its value in detecting substances and alerting the public
Three mysterious recreational drugs have surfaced for the first time in Australia with chemists describing them as “unexpected, new psychoactive substances”.
Users had presented the trio of previously unknown drugs to Canberra’s fixed pill-testing site, CanTEST, within the past six months.
But despite the operation’s ability to identify substances and their purities, the three samples in question had CanTEST scientists scratching their heads.
The mystery drugs were sent to the Australian National University (ANU), with its chemists discovering the substances had not previously been reported.
Professor Malcolm McLeod said the person who had put forward the first novel substance believed it was derived from Ritalin, which is a drug prescribed to treat ADHD, but the drug was instead found to be a new type of “cathinone or bath salts”.
“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,” Professor McLeod said.
He said the user who presented the second substance had thought it was similar to Ketamine, which is an anaesthetic, but testing showed it was a new type of benzylpiperazine (BZP) stimulant.
The third novel drug was taken to CanTEST by a person who was unsure what it was.
“We later identified the drug to be a new phenethylamine drug known as propylphenidine. Phenethylamines are a category of stimulant drugs that includes amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA,” Professor McLeod explained.
‘A lot of unknown drugs’
CanTEST clinical lead and emergency doctor David Caldicott said the service was showing its value by detecting and creating awareness around new drugs.
“This is potentially of huge public health importance, not just to Canberra, but to the rest of the world, and has probably not been fully appreciated to date,” Dr Caldicott said.
Steph Tzanetis, of Pill Testing Australia and Directions Health, agreed, adding that the current illicit drug market consisted of “a lot of unknown drugs”.
Canberra has been at the forefront of Australia’s harm reduction approach to drugs after the nation’s first static pill-testing site was launched by the ACT government in mid-2022.
It started as a pilot but was later extended until the end of this year.
The service lets people anonymously get their drugs tested, with staff saying that results often prompt clients to reconsider taking the substances.
And in the case of the three novel drugs, any decision to discard might have been because the drugs were wholly different to what the user had believed.
This is not the first time CanTEST has led to the identification of a new recreational drug, after a substance dubbed CanKet was discovered in 2022.
Critics of CanTEST had argued that it was effectively a green light for illicit drug use, but Ms Tzanetis said the evidence pointed to the contrary.
“The use of drugs doesn’t increase but behaviour is modified so people take less risks,” she said.
In 2018, the ACT became the first jurisdiction to have a pop-up pill-testing site at a music festival, with the service recently available at Canberra’s 2023 Spilt Milk festival.
At the time, Victorian Ambulance union secretary Danny Hill said the incident highlighted the need for better drug education “whether it’s pill checking or pill testing”.
Pill testing has not been available in Victoria.
Ms Tzanetis said that if those people “could’ve had their drugs tested, and if it was something they didn’t expect … they might’ve chosen to discard those substances.”