Current drug laws contribute to unnecessary deaths

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Gladys Berejiklian has vehemently opposed pill testing in NSW (screenshot via YouTube).

Refusal to allow pill testing doesn’t just ignore the evidence from overseas, it’s motivated by a range of ideological and moral failures.

"We can’t allow pill-testing, because it sends the wrong message about the use of illegal drugs."

This is a favourite line of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and is consistently wheeled out by various state politicians around the country as an excuse for inaction in the face of drug-related deaths at music festivals.

Trouble is, the "wrong message" argument is not supported by research and is probably smuggling serious ideological baggage.

The idea that Berejiklian claims to be defending is roughly this: sending the wrong message about drugs by allowing pill testing will cause so many more people to use them, that even if pill testing saves lives at a festival, the net effect will be an increased loss of life. Let one person die at a music festival so that five others are saved at a pub, or something like that.

There seems to be no real reason to think that this supposed spread of the wrong message somehow encourages increased drug use. Research indicates that pill testing in Europe (which has been occurring in different forms since 1992) has not led to increased rates of drug use either at festivals or more generally. If anything, a significant proportion of individuals involved disposed of their pills rather than take something that didn’t contain the substances they expected.

Now, it could be that Berejiklian’s appeal to the greater good is simply based on ignorance, ideological bias or a misunderstanding of the evidence. Even so, the refusal to compromise seems strange. If she is willing to sacrifice the lives of festival-goers to protect the wider community, then she should be open to an option that reduces human lives lost as collateral in the war on drugs.

Surely, her duty is to preserve as much human life as is reasonably possible, right?

Her reluctance to do so could be grounded in a range of factors, some pragmatic, some ideological, none of them remotely supportable in a modern pluralist democracy.

Recent comments from a senior Liberal source in NSW suggest that one reason for the current government not pursuing pill testing is that it would not be popular with some with Liberal voters. At best, this position cynically and savagely devalues those lives that might have been saved. At worst, it is treating the lives of drug users as means to an end.

That someone would refuse to allow something that could save lives in order to spend another four years collecting a government pay packet is worse than irrational, it is a truly morally abject decision.

Anyone who is comfortable making such a trade-off is not fit to be anywhere near politics, let alone in parliament. I genuinely hope that this is not a commonly held view in any party. 

Perhaps the political aversion to pill-testing is because it draws attention to how differently the risks associated with illicit drug use are treated when compared to others we regularly face. There was a time when the rate of deaths per head of population from motor vehicle accidents utterly dwarfed that of drug-related deaths. Due to advances in both technology and law, including stricter vehicle safety standards and mandatory seat-belts, this is no longer the case.

Driving cars and taking pills at music festivals both carry risks. But the moral judgement on these activities is completely different, and I think this is what dictates the differences in how governments respond.

What lies behind this negative moral evaluation? A gut feeling that any experience other than hard-working capitalist sobriety (punctuated by a weekly trip to the pub or footy) is somehow inherently bad? Is our human dignity so reduced by experiencing euphoria, ego-loss or even hallucination that it’s better to let some of us die, rather than risk too many people feeling anything out of the ordinary?

Maybe it's that such experiences should only happen through divine intervention and that taking a pill to share a spiritual connection with a bunch of people is a sin against the Almighty, one so serious that it would be better to let the sinner die to protect the souls of the broader community (although unlikely). No matter how worthy of debate these ideas might be, NSW is not a theocracy and not everyone believes the same things about religion.

Sorry, but a deeply held belief that your particular God disapproves of MDMA just doesn’t cut it.

Nor is any vague hand-wringing about "undermining the law" even a remotely sufficient justification here.

In what situation would it be okay to refuse preventing the deaths of people breaking a law, just because it might somehow undermine that law? Even in extreme cases it would be ethically dubious. If an alleged murderer was shot during their capture and bleeding out, would it make sense to refuse them treatment on the grounds that saving their life might send the wrong message about murder? Not even remotely!

To do so simultaneously devalues human life (which makes the law against taking life seem odd) and contradicts the idea that punishment for lawbreaking is delivered by the judicial system.

So it is with illicit drug use and the refusal to allow pill testing (as well as other harm minimisation strategies). Even someone who supports current drug laws should agree that the consequences for a person breaking them should be whatever a court decides, not dying in a field because politicians won’t let experts tell people what’s in their pills. 

Whether motivated by self-centred pragmatism or ideological purity, the price that the community, families and individuals are paying for the opposition to pill testing is too high. Politicians must understand that human lives are not something to be traded away for the sake of keeping party members happy (and donating) or to defend a narrow ideal of what is acceptable for people to experience.

The time for inaction is over.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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