Very rarely in the formulation of public policy do you get uniform consensus about the merits and effectiveness of a particular program proposal. When it involves young people having a good time, generally the entertainment industry and the various medical and scientific groups are diametrically opposed. Throw in young people losing their lives, and you can usually also guarantee spirited and passionate opposition from aggrieved parents.
Except in regards to pill testing
Doctors, festival organisers, scientists, parents of victims, recreational drug users and festival goers more widely are in consensus that providing a facility for people to have their drugs analysed at festivals would contribute massively to harm minimisation.
And that’s all we want really. After all, Mike Baird did call on music festival organisers to take responsibility for drug overdoses, he said “this madness has to end”. If the government wants harm minimisation, then there is no other policy as comprehensively capable of delivering than on-site pill testing.
Let’s look at the issues holistically.
Certain drugs are prohibited, but people take them anyway. Prohibition is not an effective deterrent. Yet a consequence of this prohibition is that the quality of a substance is not subject to regulatory oversight. This lack of oversight, combined with economic incentive and unscrupulous business practices, means that at times drug manufacturers produce merchandise of variable quality and strength. At other times, the product represented as a particular drug is something completely different; noxious and toxic combinations concocted in backyard laboratories by amateurs. It makes drug taking an immeasurably more dangerous recreation, and sometimes people die.
Enter pill testing.
The rationale behind pill testing is astoundingly simple: if people are going to take prohibited substances, then at least empower them to take them in the safest possible way. Allowing people to know what chemicals are actually in their drugs is, insofar, the only effective means available to minimise deaths from accidental overdoses. Deterrence is all well and good, but when it fails as manifestly as current drug policies have, the only humane and reasonable option is to at least ensure people are safe. Dogmatically demanding that recreational drug policy hold the moral high ground of deterrence only exacerbates the problem.
This isn’t a new nor radical concept. It has been implemented in Europe for a number of years. Domestically, the Australian Medical Association (hardly the most progressive medical interest group) originally called for pill testing to be trialled back in 2005.
Which brings us to this week, when Dr Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and Dr David Caldicott of the Australian National University announced that they would conduct a privately funded trial of pill testing, whether the government liked it or not. Whether intentional or not, the announcement dragged the issue of pill testing and harm minimisation back into the national spotlight. With the backing of prominent members of the medical community, festivals such as Stereosonic and victim support groups, I genuinely believed this eminently sensible public health initiative had finally found some traction.
Enter Casino Mike and his merry gang; virtuous defenders of Casinos’ rights and sheltered middle class morality.
“What people are asking us to do is to allow illegal drugs.” Was what our illustrious Premier told Sunrise this morning. An absolute clanger of a lesson on the importance of the hard line approach to public policy which somehow gave us the Sydney lockout laws which exempted both casinos. If there is a lesson in this, I’m missing it.
“Don’t do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine.” He also added.
Thanks for the free-advice Mike. I’m sure paramedics will be lining up to thank you – just once they manage to revive and stabilise some young adult choking to death in their own bodily fluids because the MDMA they thought they were taking was a combination of tractor brake fluid and horse tranquiliser.
Comedic hyperbole aside, the problem with the Premier’s position on this is it entirely contradictory of how almost every other public policy position is approached in this state (and I don’t just mean the borderline corrupt exemption of casinos from citywide lockout laws).
I can understand why drugs are illegal – as much as I disagree, I can at least appreciate that there are some very good public policy reasons for prohibiting certain substances. They cause huge amounts of harm in the community, and contribute to everything from car accidents to theft and domestic violence (sort of like alcohol). Nevertheless, at the heart of public policy formation is always going to be an issue of balancing competing interests. As President Bartlett once said in an episode of The West Wing, “every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.” Drug policy is every shade of grey; the only absolute is that we don’t want people to die.
However, at the heart of public policy formation is also an appreciation that a certain policy position may result in unintended and undesirable social consequences. Good policy and good governance demands these consequences are ameliorated; responsible governments provide solutions to the unintended or negative ramifications of an otherwise well-intended and directed public policy.
Take trade liberalisation, for example.
We enter treaties that lower protections for domestic industries in exchange for other countries doing the same. Some industries cannot compete with foreign competitors with much better economies of scale straight away, so governments provide funding or subsidies to these industries to make them more competitive on a global scale. The policy itself is good, but some help is needed to protect against unintended outcomes.
Transpose that onto drugs.
We prohibit them, but that prohibition has resulted in a lot of low quality and dangerous product on the street. The prohibition has not acted as a deterrence and, on experience, is unlikely to suddenly become a deterrent in the future. People are taking drugs, the drugs are dangerous but you want to keep them illegal – what do you do?
You ameliorate the negative consequences of public policy and make an exception for the purpose of harm minimisation. You test the pills, you turn a blind eye – because that is the only way we keep the kids alive. A person stubbornly standing steadfast on the moral high ground whilst people die is not a leader, they are a coward. A person standing on principle when it clearly doesn’t work isn’t a role model, they are an idiot. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong when it comes to public policy on illicit drugs, the only wrong is the person refusing to recognise a plan that will help prevent people from dying.
Test the fucking pills, Mike.