Why vague warnings about 'extremely dangerous orange pills' don't work and can actually be counterproductive

Firstly, my heart goes out to the five families and their friends who have lost their loved ones at music festivals over the past couple of months. It's important to remember that behind every headline and news story written about these tragic deaths there are people who are dealing with a terrible loss …

Earlier this week we saw a warning issued by promoters of events, police and health authorities about "an extremely dangerous orange pill" that was currently available. The Daily Mail went one step further taking information disseminated by DanceWize NSW and warned about a "psychotic 'yellow drug'" that could also be possibly linked to the death of a young man. I'm not too sure who issued the original warning but it appears to have been linked to an incident at the NSW Lost Paradise Festival where the media reported a death had occurred after taking an "unknown substance". This is how it read:

"SERIOUS DRUG ALERT: There is an extremely dangerous orange pill in circulation. Regardless of pill variation, one pill can kill. Seek medical if you feel unwell."

First of all, I have no problem with the rest of the message - powerful and true, and it's great to see that is really pushes the importance of seeking help … but about this 'orange pill' …

Over the years we've seen countless warnings put out about 'bad batches' of pills, usually based on very little quality information. They usually pop up straight after a spate of overdoses or, tragically, a death and in an effort to provide some kind of quick response someone who really should know better stands up in front of the media and issues a very vague warning about a pill, capsule or powder. As far as I am aware, this particular warning was splashed across the country based on no toxicology results, in fact when a Tasmanian police officer was asked where it had originated he was quoted as saying "There has been some information that came through that [the] person might have taken an orange pill". In my experience, these warnings are based on hearsay, rumour and little else … Unfortunately, when that happens, when we do have good quality information and toxicology results it makes it so much more difficult for us to disseminate a warning effectively - we've become the 'boy who cried wolf'.

The reason I raise this is that yesterday I received an email from a young man in his 20s who must have heard me speak at his school a number of years ago. It's short and to the point and it is obvious he just wanted to vent but I think he raises a very good point …

"I'm not expecting you to respond to this message, I just didn't know who else to write to without getting myself into trouble with the law. I started taking MDMA (or ecstasy) a couple of years after leaving school - I don't use it a lot, maybe a couple of times a year, usually at the bigger music festivals. I'm very careful and my friends and I look after each other pretty well. 
You may have seen the warning that was put out about orange pills - most of my friends got it by text a few times over a couple of days. The thing is that we have had a few big nights over the past few weeks and used orange pills each time. They're some of the best we've ever had and not one person in my group has got sick on them. I know that not all orange pills are the same but what's with the dumb warning? I don't know anyone who got the text who didn't laugh at it and delete it almost straight away and that's not what we should be doing with warnings about drugs.
As I said, I'm not expecting you to write back but my mates and I were talking about the recent death and if he did take an orange pill, so did a whole pile of others - they're not dead. How does that make it "extremely dangerous"?"

Now I'm sure some people reading that would find it quite confronting but, as I have already said, he has a point. This very vague warning appears to have been issued based on the possibility that the young man who died may have taken an orange pill. There were no toxicology results so we actually know nothing about this drug. The thing I find most upsetting about this email is that this young man and his friends laughed at it and deleted it - that shouldn't be happening!

Of course, some people would say that it is better to be safe than sorry and even if there is a chance that an orange pill was the cause of this festivalgoer's death, then we should warn potential users about it. Maybe, but we should be careful with our 'warnings' and ensure we base them on facts and not rumour - if we don't we lose our credibility and users won't listen. That is where pill testing can play an important role - being able to access toxicology results about what is being identified in pills, capsules and powders and then issuing high quality and accurate information in a timely manner is far more likely to be effective and be viewed as credible by potential users.

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