A Victorian coroner is desperately calling for public testing services for illicit drugs, following an investigation into the harrowing deaths of five young men in Melbourne who unknowingly ingested toxic combined drugs.
The investigation found the men, aged 17 to 32, died in five separate incidents, after taking what they believed to be MDMA and magic mushrooms, but was in fact a combination of two highly potent novel psychoactive substances.
Each of the men exhibited erratic and distressed behaviour after taking the drugs, including headbutting walls and furniture, hallucinating and paranoia.
In four cases the men experienced seizures and respiratory distress before dying.
A fifth man leapt from a tenth floor balcony and died from his injuries combined with drug toxicity.
Coroner Paresa Spanos on Wednesday called for the Victorian Government to urgently implement a drug checking service and a drug early warning network, to avoid further deaths
The public drug checking service would rapidly analyse drugs for content and purity, and an early warning network would alert the public to dangerous drugs in the community.
“For as long as illicit drug use exists in the community, Victorians will continue to be exposed to the risks of unregulated drug markets,” Coroner Spanos said in her findings.
“The successful operation of drug early warning systems internationally, coupled with submissions from those working in harm minimisation, demonstrated that these evidence-based interventions could save lives.”
Submissions were made by government departments, academic experts and organisations working to reduce drug harm.
RMIT University senior research fellow Monica Barratt took part in the inquiry, and her research was vital in influencing the final recommendations.
In an opinion piece in The Conversation, Dr Barratt said she had argued for more timely communication to the public about the dangers of the drug combination.
She said it was likely the men would not have taken the concoctions, or may have ingested them in a “less risky” way, if they had known their drugs contained the harmful ingredients that led to their deaths.
There has been recent work globally on how to best regulate stimulants like MDMA, but Australia has not made any headway on the issue.
“If we had a legalised and regulated supply of MDMA, we wouldn’t need to analyse samples to work out what’s in them,” Dr Barratt said.
“In the current context of drug prohibition, the most promising pathway to reduce harm among people who use drugs is to help them understand the content and purity of the drugs they may consume.”