ALEX WODAK. What can be done to improve the safety of young people taking illegal drugs at youth music events?

Oct 17, 2019

Leaked recommendations from a NSW Coronial inquiry into the deaths of six young people after taking illegal drugs at youth music events highlights the resistance of Australian governments to harm reduction and their entrenched reliance on restricting the supply of drugs despite repeated failures of this approach.  

It has recently been leaked that the Deputy NSW Coroner, Harriet Grahame, will officially recommend that the NSW government should allow pill testing at music festivals, scrap the use of sniffer dogs and overhaul strip-searches. However, should these recommendations be made, the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has already rejected them.

Every summer for some years a number of young, healthy Australians have died and many others have been admitted to hospital severely ill after taking unregulated drugs, generally ecstasy (MDMA), at youth music events. These tragic events have occurred notwithstanding saturation policing, the extensive use of sniffer dogs and strip searches and unrealistic expectations that exhortations by authorities for young people to abstain from taking drugs will be effective.

The ACT Government allowed a limited trial of pill testing in 2018 and again in 2019. These trials demonstrated that authorities including government and police, music event promoters, and researchers can all work together well; on site testing of illegal drugs is feasible; identifying pills containing toxic contaminants is possible; and owners of pills found to be dangerous generally accept advice from experts to discard high risk pills. No deaths or hospital admissions were reported in either trial. The ACT experience is consistent with the international experience in over a dozen countries for up to a quarter of a century.

Why then are all Australian governments, apart from the ACT, so reluctant to allow pill testing when the arguments for approval are so compelling and the case against so weak? Has any other risky commodity ever been made safer by prohibiting high quality testing? At present, poor quality qualitative testing without expert feedback is not illegal and is widely practised while scientific quality testing with explanation and advice by experts is banned. 

There are probably several factors which explain the government recalcitrance. First, governments appear to see political advantage in showing an indifference to the health and well being of people taking illegal drugs. Second, apart from the ACT, senior police appear to be  opposed to pill testing; music promoters are required to recompense police for the not inconsiderable costs of policing these events. Third, most countries including Australia vigorously resist new drug harm reduction strategies no matter how urgent the need nor how strong the case for approval. The resistance to approving pill testing in Australia follows this pattern, as seen in the initial attempts to introduce methadone treatment, needle syringe programs, and Medically Supervised Injecting Centres. The bias for maintaining the status quo bias as well as strictly adhering to principle rather than carefully weighing the net impact of benefits minus adverse effects is overwhelming.

The recent Coronial Inquest from which the alleged recommendations are said to have emerged demonstrates the benefits of taking thorny and important issues out of a hotly contested political arena and subjecting them to the careful clinical scrutiny of a court setting. The 2016 Coronial inquiry in Victoria which demolished the state governments case for rejecting a Medically Supervised Injecting Centre is another such example.

The alternative to pill testing – saturation policing with sniffer dogs and strip-searches – is ineffective, frequently counterproductive and provides a negative return for a not-inconsiderable investment. The associated high costs are passed on to promoters who pass them on to their patrons. The appalling record of this approach will sooner or later have adverse political consequences. And once one major Australian state government accepts the inevitable, the others will slowly fall into line. Current drug harm reduction have an excellent record for effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness, and good new strategies are also generally eventually approved.

Pill testing is not perfect but it is better than current arrangements. In drug policy, it is important to never let the best be the enemy of the good. Ultimately, the approval of pill testing will be a step towards the introduction of regulated pharmaceutical grade MDMA.

On 9 November it will be 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union and its allies had managed to ignore powerful market forces for many decades. But when the moment of truth came, the denial of reality collapsed very quickly. In prospect, difficult changes seem impossible but in retrospect they are seen for what they really are: inevitable.

Dr Alex Wodak AM, is a physician and President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation    

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