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EFFECTIVE policies on illicit drugs are invariably counter intuitive. The ideal would be, in Nancy Reagan’s words, “to just say ‘no’”. Unfortunately, this largely law enforcement approach has been a dismal failure increasing crime and health problems. The most effective intervention is a comprehensive approach with a strong focus on treatment and harm-reduction strategies combined with addressing supply through effective policing.
Sunday’s Groovin’ the Moo festival was bypassed as the first opportunity. Instead, the Spilt Milk youth music dance event in December is proposed as the first trial for pill testing in the ACT. It will follow a detailed planning process to ensure all health and legal issues have been addressed. It is important to be meticulous when planning entry into a new and controversial area.
Pill-testing advocate Dr David Caldicott and others were enraged that the opportunity to commence with Groovin’ the Moo was missed. I have sympathy for that view. However, the worst thing would be to have a half-baked program fall over through teething problems that would undermine the long-term benefits.
Pill testing involves analysing tiny fragments of pills or powders that people have bought from the black market. The analysis is carried out on sophisticated machines that are standard equipment in Australian laboratories. Typically, the drugs present can be identified, the dose quantified and the presence of any dangerous contaminants determined.
In some festivals overseas pictures of dangerous tablets are displayed prominently to encourage people to discard these dangerous preparations.
The focus is on ensuring the young people who are determined to take an illicit drug actually understand the impact of what they are doing, the dose they have and what is really in the pill.
The ACT government needs to have all of the details thoroughly worked through before the trial begins. Legal issues may prove more complicated than the health issues. The process of evaluation must be understood and planned well as the community is entitled to know if the pill testing trial is successful.
The disappointment over the delay is understandable. Australia has lost about half a dozen bright young people from drugs at music dance events every summer for the last few years. Not so long ago Australia was a world leader in harm reduction. Our country now lags behind many similar developed countries.
Attempts to prevent young people taking psychoactive drugs when attending these kinds of festivals have failed. The only way that they can obtain the drugs they want for the time being is buying them from the black market. This is why a pragmatic public health approach is necessary.
This means allowing carefully regulated pill testing to take place as international evidence indicates it has a high probability of saving lives, preventing expensive hospital admissions and even saving law enforcement costs.
However, pill testing will neither eliminate all deaths nor will it eliminate some people getting seriously ill after taking psychoactive drugs bought from the black market. But it will be a significant reduction in risk.
It is realistic to expect, based on experience from other countries, that most people will throw away their drugs when testing has shown their drugs to be dangerous. It is also likely that the presence of testing at a youth music event will increase competition for safety between those selling drugs.
Harm minimisation approaches have been highly successful in Australia. Despite having been personally involved in these debates for over a quarter of a century, I am always surprised at the resistance. Every new reform is still resisted tooth and nail. We should know better.