Should We Allow ‘Pill Testing’ At Music Festivals?

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Australia has long advocated a zero-tolerance approach to drug use, imposing heavy penalties with lasting consequences for those who are caught with drugs in their possession.

But these disincentives have done little to dissuade the 10.9% of Australians aged 14 or over who admit to using ecstasy at least once – a figure that is only set to rise as the drug becomes cheaper and more accessible due to the proliferation of online drug trading sites.

Clearly, ecstasy use is common in Australia – and it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down despite successive governments spending millions on campaigns to stop young people from trying the drug.

Now, people from a wide range of backgrounds – including medical practitioners, musicians and even the parents of those who have lost their lives through drug experimentation – are calling on the Australian government to consider a European approach to tackling ecstasy use which has been shown to reduce overdoses and deaths by promoting a safe forum for drug use.

The Problem with Ecstasy

Many of the harmful effects associated with ecstasy are directly linked to the fact that it is illegal – and there is therefore no regulation as to what goes into pills or caps.

Ecstasy pills purportedly contain MDMA, which is a psychoactive drug widely used for its euphoric effects including increased sociability, visual and other physical and mental sensations.

But because of the absence of regulation, pill manufacturers will often cut or lace MDMA with harmful and toxic substances such as ketamine, ephedrine or synthetic cathinones (one component of “bath salts”) in an effort to “bulk up” the physical weight of the pills.

Research by the Australian Government shows that the purity of ecstasy pills in Australia varied anywhere between 11.6% to 32.7% between 2005 and 2012, compared to an average purity of 66.3% in the UK and 77.5% in the Netherlands.

The low-quality of Aussie pills can be attributed to our geographical isolation from the rest of the world – and particularly Europe, where most drug precursors originate from – which means that the cost and risk of importing ingredients is high.

This, in turn, means that Australian ecstasy pills are more likely to contain foreign or toxic substances – and are therefore more likely to cause harm or even death.

Another major problem with current drug laws is the simple fact that, because there is no regulation and users are forced to use the black market to obtain pills, those wishing to purchase ecstasy have little choice in what they get.

It’s essentially a case of ‘the luck of the draw’ – meaning that Australians have to gamble with their health and safety every time they wish to experiment with ecstasy.

Sadly, as noted by one health professional, Australia’s current drug policy ignores reality by lumping recreational drugs with more dangerous drugs such as ice, and focussing on prevention and punishment, rather than accepting the fact that many Australians will experiment with ecstasy at some point in their lives.

This has seen police relentlessly target drug users by stationing drug detection dogs at entrances to festivals and other events where drug use is rife, with courts criminalising many who get caught.

But instead of saving lives, our government’s outdated and flawed approach has arguably increased the risks associated with taking ecstasy, with several young Australians tragically losing their lives over the years.

In 2009, 17-year-old Gemma Thoms lost her life after taking ecstasy pills before the Big Day Out festival. Her friend who accompanied her to the event, Cassandra Southern, said that Gemma had swallowed the pills in a last-minute attempt to evade sniffer dogs which were patrolling the entrance to the festival.

Similar circumstances allegedly surrounded the death of Victorian teenager James Munro, who tragically died after taking three pills at last year’s Defqon.1 rave festival.

The European Approach

A raft of experts have suggested that future deaths could be prevented if Australia simply looked at alternative drug policies, such as those adopted by European countries.

In the Netherlands – the home of EDM and rave culture – the government has accepted the fact that ecstasy use is rife, and has focused on harm minimisation instead of drug prevention.

There, many rave parties are frequented by on-site pill testing services, which allow drug users to screen the contents of their pills for any dangerous substances.

Pill-testers provide results within 30 minutes, so that users can quickly determine whether the pills they are taking are safe.

Police also patrol these events, but they take a passive approach – allowing users to have their pills tested without fear of police intervention or arrest.

In other countries such as Portugal, risk-management services attend major festivals to provide advice about drug use through psychologists, mental health assistants, and medics, as well as pill-screening services. Since the initiative began, there have been no reported deaths from overdoses.

This just goes to show that creating a safe and supportive environment for drug users does not create dangers by facilitating drug use, as we are so often told by our politicians, but can actually save lives.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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