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A Bitter Pill: Drug Testing at Festivals

1 April 2016

How many times, I wonder, do we have to hear the same sentiment before our politicians begin to make some brave policy decisions on drug use? It’s becoming a cliché. We need a new approach that deals with drug use as a health issue and not as a criminal one. We desperately need to end the hapless and costly ‘war on drugs’ and stop criminalising drug users.

This summer, Australia suffered through one of its deadliest festival seasons to date, with a string of tragic deaths attributed to the consumption of ecstasy. It comes as no surprise then that our government continues to push for stronger legislation and tougher measures in a vain attempt to stop illicit drug use.

The NSW government in particular, continues to vehemently neglect evidence-based policy with its staunchly anti-drug Premier Mike Baird arguing for an ‘abstinence or die’ approach: “Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine”.

Thanks Uncle Mike, way to succinctly sum up the vast and complex nature of drug consumption while doing your utmost to protect your constituents from harm.

This deluded approach to drug policy is costing young Australians their lives. The naivety of Mike Baird to think it is even remotely effective to advocate for an abstinence approach to drugs is astounding.

Trying to ban drug use is like trying to outlaw masturbation. You can’t fucking do it. After decades of legislative failure and given the current ubiquity of illegal drugs, you would think it was time for a different approach.

Most wars come to an end, yet the ‘war on drugs’ rages on unabated. Wreaking havoc in our communities and causing lasting harm, it is the untold collateral damage that has made this an unwinnable war. With thousands of Australians currently incarcerated because of drugs, lives have been ruined due to criminal convictions. Many have died from preventable overdoses. Criminals profit and corruption seeps into our police forces

The effectiveness of drug policy seems to have taken a backseat to the ideology that informs it: that drugs are bad and prohibition will one day create a drug-free utopia where everyone’s happy and we shit gold out of our asses. In truth, we seem to be consuming our fair share of legal and extremely dangerous drugs right now.

Tobacco kills approximately 20,000 Australians a year and alcohol kills more than 5,000. Ecstasy, or adulterants sold as ecstasy, has killed seven people in the last 12 months. Where is Mike Baird’s vocal opposition to big tobacco? Where are his calls for abstinence from alcohol? This is not to downplay the tragedy of young people dying after consuming ecstasy, but rather to point out the hypocrisy of government when it comes to illicit drugs. Our governments rely on specious claims about the dangers of drugs, and on ideological principles that oppose drug taking, yet they tacitly condone the use of alcohol and tobacco and indeed profit from them through huge taxes.

We also need to stop stigmatising illicit drug use as if it is some immoral deviance. Countless people use drugs and function as normal human beings. Doctors, lawyers and politicians are all among the huge swathe of Australians who have consumed illegal drugs at some point.

“This may come as a shock to many people (except the third of the population who have used an illicit substance), but most people use illicit drugs because they enjoy them. Yes, drug use is “FUNctional” for many,” says Greg Dunham, former Victorian policeman and now drug reform advocate.

We need to wake up and start demanding change. We can’t let cowardly politicians and anti-drug zealots who know little or nothing about the facts frame the debate surrounding drug policy.

In December, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented on the tragic death of a man at Adelaide’s Stereosonic music festival.

“It’s a reminder to us about how dangerous these substances are. You don’t know what’s in them and if you’re taking them you have no idea what you’re putting in your body and what the consequences can be.”

Tinged with irony, this statement was made to reaffirm our current approach to drugs. In actual fact, it starkly reminds us that it is the illegality of these drugs that can make them most dangerous. If ecstasy was manufactured legally it would be free of harmful adulterants. If people were taught about how to consume drugs in the safest possible manner, far fewer people would be harmed or killed.

We also forget the success of regulating a substance like tobacco. Not only have we become acutely more aware of the harms of tobacco, smoking rates have also declined sharply in recent decades. Not to mention the billions raised in tax revenue. It’s estimated that New South Wales alone would make 600 million dollars annually in tax revenue from a regulated cannabis market, not to mention the jobs it would create.

This all may be a bitter pill to swallow for those out there that can’t fathom why someone would consume illegal drugs. The fact is many Australians take drugs and will continue to do so no matter the legality. Let’s stop neglecting the truth and start implementing policy that actually helps society rather than damages it.

Image credit: cybele malinowski via flickr


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