The case for pill testing
Over the New Year’s period two party goers have fatally overdosed at music festivals around the country, renewing the debate about pill testing which has become a contentious issue in New South Wales.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has taken a firm stance against pill testing in the wake of the two fatal overdoses and over 700 requiring drug related medical treatment at Defqon1 late last year.
Berejiklian has since softened her stance on pill testing after the deaths over New Year’s and is now open to considering the possibility of pill testing at future music festivals in the state. It is still unclear, however, if public money will be used to supply pill testing services or venue operators will be permitted to operate their own pill testing services privately, or with cooperation from outside institutions.
The current response to drugs in music festivals in both New South Wales and Victoria is the controversial approach of a heavy police presence at music festivals; sniffer dogs, plain clothes and uniformed officers and an onsite detective cohort to facilitate operations. Many have questioned the effects of this approach, citing that it often encourages revellers to quickly consume large amounts of drugs when they see police in the area, to avoid prosecution.
It is often claimed that pill testing services will increase the prevalence of young people taking potentially dangerous substances like MDMA, LSD and other psychedelics. Recent studies suggest this is not the case, citing that a project in the Netherlands found that pill testing did not increase the use of party drugs where services were offered.
A nation first trial of pill testing services was conducted at Canberra’s ‘Groovin The Moo’ festival in 2018 and of the 83 samples tested, 42% of those who participated said they would change their drug taking behaviour and 18% said they would not use their drugs at all.
These figures speak to the successes of pill testing around the world and at home. Yet major resistance from politicians and to a lesser extent the Australian public still exists. One argument put forward is that ecstasy is an illegal drug and an inherent danger to young people from which they should be protected.
Drug use expert and former policy advisor to the British Government, Dr. David Nutt, published a study which developed a scale to assess the harm different drugs. The study shows that ecstacy (MDMA) is not only less harmful than cannabis, but is significantly less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, two substances that can be found and purchased in abundance at Australian music festivals legally.
Pill testing would work to reduce the number of harmful cutting and substitute agents that illegal drug dealers use to pad their products. Pill testing will never be a solution that stops all deaths at music festivals but it has shown to be an effective harm reduction method.
Government would not need to provide pill testing services as there are already organisations and companies willing to offer the service. The pill testing trial in Canberra was supplied pro bono by a university organisation, with no involvement from the government.
If there are people who are willing to get their pills tested and private businesses or organisations willing to offer pill testing services, it is not the role of government to intervene in that transaction on behalf of those who see it wrong or immoral to use drugs. It should be understood that the right to put a substance into your own body is fundamental to a free society, regardless of the dangers or harm a substance can cause.
Successive Australian state and federal governments have continued to enforce a prohibition approach towards drug use in society. This has had profound consequences for the ecstasy and party pill market, in particular affecting quality of safety.
The purity of MDMA tablets in Australia routinely ranks at the bottom of developed nations. A study conducted by American Addiction Centers found that MDMA pill purity was 16.1 percent, the lowest of all developed nations surveyed. Compared to the Netherlands, a country which pursues a far more liberal approach to drug use, came in at 68.8 percent while also having a lower rate of ecstasy related hospitalisations and deaths.
The same study also found that Australian pills tested highest in the developed world for substitute substances like MDA and other amphetamines, substances that are far more chemically dangerous and easier to produce than MDMA.
It appears that the prohibition approach employed by Australian governments has restricted the supply of less harmful MDMA, which requires precursors that are more scarce and predominantly only available in Europe, in favour or far more harmful substances that are easy to produce in makeshift labs across the country.
The debate surrounding pill testing invokes a lot of emotion, which is certainly understandable in the case of young people having their lives cut short. However, the choice to take a pill is only harmful to the person who chooses to take it, and pursuing a policy of prohibition only serves to exacerbate the risks. The government should end its harmful and authoritarian approach to drug use, and recognise that young people will experiment with drugs so long as there are young people: no policy from Canberra or Sydney will change that.
Should a government wish to pursue an approach that respects the freedom of adults to make decisions about their own bodies, while also allowing consenting parties to access and provide meaningful harm prevention, pill testing is the solution.