State agencies are planning a service that would allow people to get their drugs tested before they use them. The Ministry of Social Affairs says that experience of other countries suggests the service can help save lives.
Head of the criminal bureau of the North Prefecture Urmet Tambre warned last week that an extremely dangerous batch of MDMA that likely includes toxic additives might be going around in Estonia. It is possible that two young people have died as a result of using the substance.
Anna-Liisa Tuisk, adviser at the public health department of the Ministry of Social Affairs, gave this example. She said that while Estonia has various services for curbing drug-related damages, the country is not able to prevent all drug deaths.
"Drug testing before use is one service that can be recommended based on scientific data. That is why we have set our sights on it," Uisk explained.
Some Western European countries, Germany and the Netherlands for example, have been offering the service since the 1990s. People can check to make sure they have not been sold something they did not wish to buy and whether the substance includes toxic additives.
"The benefit has been tangible. It helps reduce overdoses and overdose deaths," Uisk noted, adding that substance testing has been praised by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and the EU's new drug strategy.
A nightlife conference was held in Berlin last week. Natalie Mets (Social Democratic Party) who advises the city of Tallinn on nightlife development said that drug testing was a hot topic at the conference.
"How to ensure awareness after people decide to use drugs was discussed, as well as how to avoid tragic deaths," Mets said.
Rapid or laboratory testing?
Aljona Kurbatova, head of the drug addiction and communicable diseases prevention center of the National Institute for Health Development, said that Estonia is only taking the first steps on the path to developing such a service.
"We need to make sure our legislation even facilitates such a service. And if not, what kind of amendments would be in order," Kurbatova explained, adding that a feasible and suitable system needs to be picked. "Next, we could start working on a model of which agencies will be responsible for the service."
Options are myriad, while looking at other countries, there are two general approaches. One solution would be to develop a so-called rapid testing service. Various testers are available that can tell the user whether the amphetamine they bought really is amphetamine. Such tests could be offered at music festivals and night clubs.
"Speaking in favor of rapid tests is the fact they are quick and easy to use, while it is also the most inaccurate method," Kurbatova said. She explained that people need to keep in mind the tests' limited capacity. "It tells you nothing about the concentration, purity and additional components of the substance."
More complicated tests that require laboratory equipment have proven successful in the Netherlands. These also vary, with mobile versions available. Even though it takes longer to get the result and requires users to be more trusting, this approach is a lot more accurate.
"How the service could be implemented in Estonia requires further analysis," Anna-Liisa Uisk said.
Kurbatova said that testing is more useful when it is part of a comprehensive service that includes, in addition to details on their purchase, advice on how to avoid risks and recognize an overdose.
Testing could help create a national warning system
Aljona Kurbatova suggested that it is worth considering how testing could result in wider social benefits. "So that information of a new and dangerous substance would not only reach the user who brings it in for testing but also a nationwide database. This way, information of new and dangerous substances could spread quickly to warn other drug users."
There are various examples of warning systems from other countries. Kurbatova added that messages need to be carefully considered in terms of how detailed the information should be.
"If we are dealing with a specific batch, for example, purple, pink or blue bills with special markings on them, we can warn people against this particular threat," Kurbatova said, adding that leaving the impression all other pills are safe needs to be avoided. "It is also possible to issue general warnings of the possibility of dangerous substances showing up in different pills and that users should be vary of all substances marketed as MDMA during a certain period."
The problem of people not being sure what they are buying runs the gamut of substances. "When the fentanyl epidemic started in Estonia, the substance was initially added to heroin that was still available at the time," Kurbatova said.
And even fentanyl might not be the most dangerous substance on the streets. Natalie Mets believes that the before use testing service would help curb drug use. "When a person finds our what is really in the substance they were about to use, if it turns out it really does contain something no human being should have in their system, there is a great chance they will decide against using it," Mets offered.
Police on top of 10 percent of €300 million illegal drugs market
There has been little public debate on drug testing before use. The Social Democrats, now part of the ruling coalition in Tallinn, said last December that they are working on a nightlife strategy for the capital. A few days later, the party's Tallinn mayor candidate Raimond Kaljulaid mentioned that a substance testing service is offered in London.
The statement caused a storm of indignation. "We need to make efforts to discourage people from using drugs instead of looking for ways to regulate the practice," then Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) said during a government press conference.
"As a citizen of Tallinn and Estonia, having served as mayor of Tallinn, I completely denounce this idea," Ratas continued.
He was joined by Urmas Reinsalu from Isamaa, working as Estonia's foreign minister at the time, who said he "sharply condemns" the substance testing plan. Reinsalu said that selling drugs is a criminal act the police are combating day and night.
"On the contrary, we need to nab these criminals and hold them responsible for their actions, instead of creating a situation where we have dens in Tallinn dispensing drugs checked for safety as the proposal went," Reinsalu found.
"I believe that changing the prevailing mindset will require more time and explanation than developing the service methodology," Anna-Liisa Uisk admitted.
She said that there are drug users everywhere, irrespective of drug-related legislation in different countries. "We cannot simply deny this fact and bury our heads in the sand. What we can do is make sure drugs are used as safely as possible."
Progress police in Estonia have made in combating illegal drugs must not be underestimated. The fentanyl epidemic ended after several ringleaders were caught and jailed. But fentanyl aside, use of other drugs has grown in Estonia.
Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) chief Elmar Vaher said in the Riigikogu Legal Affairs Committee in April that drug-related crime is worth €300 million in Estonia of which the police are capable of containing 10 percent.
Aljona Kurbatova said that all services aimed at curbing damages have been met with a negative reaction. "They have been seen as attempts to normalize and promote drug use. However, the starting point is that we are helping people who are already using to do it in a way to spare their own and public health."
Kurbatova assured that using knowledge-based methods does not boost drug abuse. "We need to understand that it will help us keep people alive," Kurbatova said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski