As we reach the peak of music festival season in Australia, it’s become an unfortunate probability that multiple young Australians will die as a result of consuming a deadly substance. There’s been a terrible start to the new year for friends and families of two young men full of potential, aged 20 and 22, that have died at the Beyond the Valley and Lost Paradise music festivals in the last fortnight. I could have written this article a few months ago; the inaction of both state governments has resulted in the inevitable. Despite this, repeated calls to initiate pill testing are falling on deaf ears of governments of the states who host most of these dance parties, New South Wales and Victoria.
Individuals are aware that illicit drugs are potentially dangerous, but some young adults still think that the reward outweighs the risk. There is market-based reasoning behind pill testing and – unlike the Greens’ approach to pill testing – it can be initiated without any cost to the taxpayer.
The role of the market in pill testing
While governments only need the morality and fortitude to reduce the deaths of young adults, private companies are inclined to reduce bad press, keep their event running and minimise legal liability. Pill testing would be a prime candidate for privatisation, because unlike the current NSW and Victorian governments, private companies know it’s not in their best interests to have their customer base die. Although it would be unscrupulous to put a dollar value on a human life, there is still no tenable financial reasoning to not provide pill testing.
Regardless of your opinion on the consumption of illicit substances, the market will always find a way. I’m not just talking about the drug market as a whole – it’s well established that drug consumption is never going away, no matter how much money is thrown at fighting it. Rather, pill testing is in demand; drug-testing kits are readily available from private businesses around Australia. Stores like Off Ya Tree readily sell the EZ Test Marquis pill testing kit for crude identification of MDMA (ecstasy) and reagents via colour.
These DIY pill-testing kits aren’t as effective as drug testing by medical professionals, but it’s clear that there’s a market for risk minimisation. A 2017 Australian study found that 94 per cent of festival-goers intending to use drugs would be likely to use official on-site pill testing if there were no chance of arrest. Nearly all (93 per cent) were even willing to pay a small premium for the service. Regardless, festival operators would likely provide this service for free if given the opportunity, because it reduces legal liability and prevents the likelihood of death.
Pill testing does not encourage consumption
A regular myth spouted by political commentators is that, by allowing pill testing, more young people are going to feel comfortable with taking dangerous drugs in greater quantities. The truth is, pill testing has dramatically improved safety at music festivals around the world. Netherlands, the UK, and Spain have all seen success as a result of allowing official drug testing at music festivals, and there has been zero evidence to support a rise in consumption.
Official on-site drug testing began as a trial for the first time in Australia at the Groovin’ The Moo festival in Canberra last year. From the outset, festival-goers at Groovin’ The Moo had to sign legal waivers, their tested samples were destroyed, and after they were tested, advice from a trained medical professional was given to them. No one was told that their drugs were safe; they were provided with advice to mitigate risk, with consideration given to what was found in their samples. To further minimise the potential for deaths, those that went through the tent were given a wristband which was optional to wear (police presence likely encouraged people not to wear them), designed to help first responders in the critical first minutes after an overdose.
There were zero deaths, and plenty of festivalgoers ended up throwing away dodgy drugs, including pills containing paint and toothpaste. As a result, two known lethal concoctions were binned, and deaths were prevented. The results of the testing have been published here.
Prohibition enhances risk
Synthesised substances like MDMA, LSD and DMT react to prohibition market forces like any other product; when risk is added to supply side, the quality will decrease, and the price will increase. This is partially the reason why products sold on the deep web tend to be higher quality and cheaper – the burdens on the supplier are less, and consumers opt for drugs from reputable suppliers. Unlike most other products however, synthesised drugs that have corners cut in production will likely result in deaths or severe injury. If a product is banned under the guise of it being for the public good, steps need to be taken to ensure the risks of using that product aren’t exacerbated.
Think inside the mind of a young Australian festivalgoer. Do you honestly believe that banning pill testing for the sake of drugs being dangerous is going to change their decision to swallow pills? Everyone knows the dangers of consuming MDMA, LSD and other mind-altering substances. By increasing police presence and danger in an attempt to prevent the inevitable, all that will result is further disdain for politicians and the police force, who are meant to be there to help.
Even former AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer has voiced his support for pill-testing, not because he supports drug use, but because he wants more children coming home: “Surely there is only one priority here and that is to try any initiative that may serve to reduce the likelihood of harm and save lives. Surely this is more important than winning an election.”
Premiers Andrews and Berejiklian, please consider pill testing and be on the right side of history, before it’s one of my friends that suffers such a preventable tragedy. If you’re staunchly anti-drug, pill testing should be the first reform you undertake.
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