The benefits of pill testing

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Testing potentially lethal drugs could save the lives of those determined to gamble with them (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

While the debate continues over whether or not pill testing at music festivals should be allowed, we need to look at the positives, writes Steven Lopez.

IT IS THE START of 2019 and we’ve had a young person lose their life to a suspected drug overdose at a music festival in Melbourne. It is a tragic waste of life and the reality is it was the victim’s choice to take the drug. It still makes me wonder, what if pill testing was available to them? Could this death and many others like it in the past across Australia have been avoided?

Let me start off by saying the only drug I do is alcohol and I do it responsibly. I'm not sure if that qualifies me to have an opinion on drugs, but I’m going to give my outsider’s perspective anyway.

In New South Wales, the Berejiklian Government is under mounting public pressure to introduce pill testing. The idea is to help reduce the growing number of drug-related deaths of young people across New South Wales, which are occurring primarily at music festivals. The NSW Premier has resisted these calls.

I believe that the reason the NSW Premier is against pill testing is that she does not want to be seen to be encouraging drug use. Instead, she wants to focus on stopping the supply. After all, if the drug supply is cut then no one will die from taking those drugs. To put it simply, treat the cause and not the symptom. The approach is fair enough, the problem is it does not seem to work when it comes to illicit substances. This all comes down to simple supply versus demand. If there is a demand, dealers will rise to meet it. The more the supply is cut, the demand pushes the cost of that drug up. While this would kill a lot of consumer demand for luxury items, it simply does the opposite with drugs. Dealers will look for ways to meet those demands, by increasing potency, cutting quality and finding other ways to get it to their consumers.

Is the answer to legalise all drugs and let people go wild? Hell no. That's just ridiculous, but I do believe we need to stop going to “war” with drugs. Instead, we should adopt a “harm reduction” approach alongside reducing supply. Pill testing is the very beginning of that approach.

Those critical of pill testing say that by providing this service, it will encourage people to take drugs. I don't believe this is the case. There are other countries that have taken this approach and have had little to no evidence of increased drug use. The Australian Capital Territory Government, where pill testing is available, also agrees.

The other argument against pill testing is that if the person takes drugs even after they're tested and dies, then who would be at fault? The government? Well, I believe the drug user is and should always be held responsible for their own actions. They made a choice, but at least we did what we could to help them. Testing pills should not open anyone else to fault of a choice another person made of their own free will, informed or otherwise. The drug dealer? Well, that’s another thing entirely.

Why should we bother having pill testing available? By providing this service, it gives us a chance to intervene at a crucial moment. It allows us to inform them about the drug, its purity, whether it has contaminants and provide counselling. Maybe even turn them off the idea of taking it in the first place. Because even if it is “clean”, it continues to remain a gamble to take. It may take some time, but I think we could see some other benefits, too. Such as an increase in trust in the authorities. This may lead to people providing information to the police to assist in disrupting supply. I don't think many people would be willing to protect a dealer who sold them a dodgy pill.

Education is the key. Let's face it, people are going to do drugs despite all the crackdowns and tut-tutting. It is a fact, whether we like it or not. Each day we spend arguing against pill testing or spend time “exploring” it instead of implementing it is another day that we may lose more lives. We need to act and be realistic about it, too.

Would having pill testing available have saved those who have died because of drugs in the past? Who’s to know. Doing nothing certainly didn't help, though.

Steven Lopez works in I.T. and has stood as an Independent candidate in State and local elections in NSW. You can follow him @slopezAU.

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