Five people died of suspected overdoses at music festivals in Victoria and New South Wales this summer. The deaths have reignited the debate about the misnamed ‘war on drugs’. These tragic developments have emboldened advocates of legal pill testing to step-up their calls for its introduction across Australia, and evidence indicates this is widely supported.
A Guardian Essential poll in January found 63% of 1089 respondents of any voting-age supported the introduction of pill testing. A 2013 survey by the Australian National Council on Drugs found 82% of people aged 16 to 25 supported it.
An online petition calling on New South Wales Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews to introduce legal pill testing had almost 110,000 signatures by February!
Significant numbers of people have used illegal drugs, however their black-market production means users often know little about their contents or strength and sometimes extremely dangerous additives are present. These are all common factors linked to overdosing.
Pill testing involves a small sample of a substance being analysed to give potential users information about its content and access to counselling and education without punitive action from police.
This means people who otherwise would have ingested something on blind faith can better avoid overdosing and bin pills that contain extremely harmful additives. International experience indicates that widely available pill testing tends to reduce the prevalence of dangerous or false substances peddled by the black market, which also increases safety.
Pill testing is advocated by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Even more significantly the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) – representing 275,000 nurses and other health sector workers – is also calling for pill testing trials.
Popular attitudes on outlawed recreational drugs – particularly amongst youth – are increasingly shifting towards viewing the matter as a social and health issue. Yet the bulk of the capitalist establishment remains committed to defending their disastrous criminalisation approach.
Currently the major parties largely use their authority to spread unscientific lies about pill testing. Berejiklian insists that there is “no evidence pill testing save lives” while Victorian Labor Deputy Premier Tim Pallas claims “it would create a false sense of security.”
Not only do these statements distort evidence from years of pill testing overseas, they also contradict results from the 2018 pill testing trial at Groovin’ The Moo in the ACT. That trial literally helped save lives because extremely harmful substances being peddled as something else were discovered and information collected also helped paramedics treat intoxicated patients.
Most of the establishment are doing what they can to resist change, with the major parties dragging their heels and capitalist media unhelpfully amplifying an insignificant minority expressing hateful opinions online about overdose victims. Nevertheless, a small but growing section of the elite have begun expressing openness to more progressive drug policies.
A small number of Labor and Liberal politicians are hedging bets by saying pill testing can’t be ruled out. That is the current approach of NSW Labor who are cynically seeking to distinguish themselves from Berejiklian but without any genuine commitment.
The Greens support pill testing and one Greens MP recently wrote a newspaper column admitting to recreational drug use. Even former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has come out in favour of pill testing.
All of these examples represent sections of the establishment feeling compelled to reflect the more progressive attitudes of an increasing majority of working and middle class people. As more people draw the conclusion that the draconian criminalisation of drugs is a failure and push for change, it puts pressure on the establishment to modify its position, especially if votes are at stake.
But the most effective way to speed this process up would be for organisations that represent health workers – like the ANMF – youth-dominated organisations like student unions and other groups like the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation (ADLRF), to take united action around demands for replacing the criminalisation of drugs with a harm-minimisation approach.
Actions could include mass rallies, community defence of unauthorised pill testing services at festivals and more.
With a concerted push from a broad and combative movement, we could compel governments to not only introduce legal pill testing services, but to embrace a harm minimisation approach to all illicit drugs, and to invest more in public health and education which would provide much better outcomes for ordinary people.
By Ben Convey