Just Say Yes (To Drug Reforms)7 June 2017
Three people died and a further 20 were hospitalised after ingesting a synthetic substance in January. All of the victims were under the impression that they were buying crystal MDMA from their respective dealers. However, the batch of caps doing the rounds at Revolver, and other Chapel Street venues, were in fact, filled with the potentially lethal synthetic drug 25C-NBOMe.
Recent statistics point to an alarming trend towards a greater hospitalisation rate for recreational MDMA users, signalling a serious need for policy reform. The 2016 Global Drug Survey revealed that the number of Australians who sought emergency medical attention after using ecstasy doubled between 2015 and 2016, with the number of related deaths also increasing. Considering the usage of ecstasy was more or less stable during this period, these numbers suggest a marked increase in potentially harmful additives being used in place of MDMA during the production of ecstasy.
Admittedly, people who make a conscious decision to take drugs from unknown sources are taking a risk with their own health, but the consequences seem to be unfairly balanced. While I don’t personally condone drug taking, can we really sit back and condemn those who want to escape the pressure of their lives on an odd Saturday night?
Anyone who has ever been to a festival or found themselves stumbling into a club in the wee hours will have seen firsthand the pronounced culture of fearless drug taking in Melbourne. In many venues, it seems that every second person will have no qualms about asking complete strangers if they “have anything” or if “they’re on”. Some friends assure me that they stay safe by consulting the website Pill Report before taking drugs that they’ve bought at a club,. However, this is hardly a foolproof method. Firstly, the website only reports on pills, and secondly, it does not have a report on every brand of ecstasy circulating at any given time.
The calls for pill testing facilities at Victorian festivals and nightclubs have grown increasingly louder over the past decade and have reached a crescendo after the aforementioned incident in January. On-site drug test kits help determine what chemicals may or may not be present in a sample, and can potentially save people from taking a dangerous pill or snorting a bag of mystery powder on a night out. I’ve seen firsthand the effects of poor quality drugs, watching in terror as friends have fallen violently ill after taking a suspect substance. I know for an absolute fact that if they had known, via testing, that their pill was potentially dangerous that they would have thrown it straight into the bin.
In cities such as Amsterdam, pill testing facilities are available at many of the mega clubs and dance festivals for patrons that are unsure about the quality of their gear. Areas are set up where users can test a fraction of whatever substance they have within a matter of minutes. These rudimentary tests reveal whether several different active ingredients are present and can indicate potentially dangerous drugs. If a pill is tested and considered potentially harmful, a clearly visible sign will be erected so that other patrons can see the warning. A similar system could be implemented in Melbourne venues with great ease and at very little cost.
However, it would be unwise to think that venue-provided drug testing kits are a silver bullet solution to the overarching problem of lethal substances infiltrating Melbourne clubs. The entire culture and consensus around illicit drugs needs to be drastically altered for any material change to occur in the long-term. It is essential that governments and law enforcement begin to have adult conversations about drug use and not dismiss progressive policies as left-wing-hippy nonsense. By preserving the societal stigma against drugs, law enforcement agencies are only exacerbating the underlying problems present within drug taking communities. By continuing to spend money and resources on a mantra of prevention and intolerance, Victoria Police have unwittingly contributed to the number of deadly drugs circulating in Melbourne. Kitchen sink drug producers using cheap, dangerous chemicals have been able to thrive thanks to incompetent measures from the authorities.
Honest discourse and education through state sponsored programs could very well improve drug quality and create a safer culture of drug taking for users. One only needs to look at a country like Portugal, which has a far lower rate of drug related deaths than Australia. Their solution? Complete decriminalisation of substances considered drugs of dependence. I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to achieve better results,. However, it is indicative that progressive drug policies have been far more effective than our own in harm reduction.
Former Victoria Police Officer and Executive Officer of Yarra Drug Health Forum, Greg Denham, has been emphasising the need of drug reform for over 10 years now. “Drugs can be risky, but they are made even more risky because of drug prohibition. When you make something illegal, you are going to make it more dangerous,” Denham commented.
“If you look at the way politicians and others talk about illicit drugs, they talk about them as being illicit because they are fundamentally dangerous when that’s not the case. If you say that long enough and loud enough then people will believe it.”
The moralistic stance of the Victorian Government is only putting more and more young people at harm every weekend, with no changes to policy outlined by the Andrews cabinet in the near future. Instead they continue to reiterate that policies like drug testing only normalise drug use. Refusing to implement actual policies for harm reduction on the grounds of an antiquated mindset that all drugs are bad in every circumstance will surely cost more people their lives over the next several years. Maybe if decision makers had adopted a more pragmatic approach to the issues of drug use in our city, then those three people who tragically passed in January would still be walking among us today.
By Stefan Boscia