The death of 25-year-old Sylvia Choi at Stereosonic in Sydney on the weekend has reignited debate about Australia’s approach to illicit drug use. On one side, you have abstinence advocates who argue that no one would die if they simply kept away from drugs.
But a recently surfaced opposition that’s quickly gaining momentum is calling foul on such hardline stances. Instead of treating drug users as criminals, they argue that we should be looking to minimise the harm surrounding drug use, which is simply an inevitable fact of life.
“There has got to be a better way and as long as young people are dying from this in Australia, we’re doing something wrong,” Dr David Caldicott, an ER doctor and drug harm minimisation advocate, told triple j’s Hack program following Ms Choi’s death.
“The answer isn’t simply, in some sort of paternalistic way, to turn around and tell an entire community they’re naughty for using drugs, because they are going to use drugs.” So what alternative is there to the sniffer dogs and strip searches?
As far as Dr Caldicott is concerned, widespread pill testing should be implemented at music festivals and anywhere else large groups of young people are taking drugs, such as nightclubs. The practice has been in use in Europe for quite some time now.
“This is so mainstream in Europe now. There’s actually a guideline about how to best do it,” he told Fairfax. “At no stage within this system is there any suggestion that we are encouraging drug use. Nobody ever gets told ‘this is great and you should use it’.”
But the police and policymakers don’t seem keen on the idea, arguing that implementing pill testing, or drug checking, would be legitimising drug use. One police spokeswoman told Fairfax data about the effectiveness of pill testing in Australia is limited.
It makes sense, since Australia has never piloted a pill testing study. However, as 60 Minutes noted earlier this year, numerous studies have been conducted in Europe and the results indicate that, far from legitimising drug use, pill testing actually leads to less people using drugs.
One thing we know for certain is that Australians love their drugs, particularly ecstasy – pills that mix the psychoactive drug MDMA with other substances. In many instances, ecstasy pills ingested by users don’t contain any traces of MDMA whatsoever.“Statistics released by the UN in 2014 listed Australians as the highest ecstasy users in the world.”
Still, as the Daily Mail reports, statistics released by the UN in 2014 listed Australians as the highest ecstasy users in the world. According to The Conversation, a 2010 survey found 11 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds had taken the drug in the previous 12 months.
According to annual research among 1,000 ecstasy users, 70 percent of these pills are taken at clubs, festivals, and dance parties. We may be known as a country that loves a cold beer, but it seems that many of us love our ecstasy just as much.
A cliche oft-used by police and lawmakers is that anyone taking ecstasy is playing ‘Russian roulette’, as there simply is no way of knowing what you’re putting in your body. Except there is and research from around the world shows pill testing is tremendously effective.
As The Conversation reports, young Australians are highly in favour of pill testing – more than 82 percent of the 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 supported its introduction.
Australia would hardly be the first nation in the world to implement pill testing. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and France all make pill testing facilities available to punters and there is a lot of evidence to show it works to reduce harm.
The benefits are myriad. Firstly, research shows that pill testing affects the local black market. Products identified as potentially harmful become the subject of warning campaigns and subsequently leave the market.
Research also showed that the ingredients of tested pills began to correspond to the expected components over time. In other words, once pill testing was introduced, the local drug market was less likely to produce pills with adulterants.
But that’s just smart business on the part of drug manufacturers. What’s truly remarkable is the way pill testing impacts the behaviour and choices of drug users.
An Austrian study found that 50 percent of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices.
Two thirds said they wouldn’t consume the tested drugs and would warn friends in cases of negative results. This highlights the role pill testing services play in public outreach, providing crucial information to a population that is often hard to reach.
Finally, pill testing will give us a means to procure long-term data about Australia’s drug scene. It creates the potential for an early warning system beyond immediate users, particularly important in a market where adulterants are appearing more frequently and taking lives.