Monday Night Q & A | Pill Testing at Music Festivals

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Edwin Nelson, Vice President of the MQ Liberal Club

Ecstasy is probably Australia’s number one party drug.

Last year –according to the Sydney Morning Herald – some 400,000 Australians took the tablet.

Australia also has the highest number of regular uses in the world. 3.1% of the Australian population claim to take the pill regularly.

So if so many people are already taking the drug than why not try to reduce the harm? I mean – you don’t want people dying of rat poison or because they don’t know how strong the tablet that they are taking really is– right?

The issue with introducing pill testing at music concerts is that it tricks many ordinary Australians into thinking that taking ecstasy can be safe.   The truth is that ecstasy is never safe.

Contrary to popular myth most people don’t die at music concerts because of impurities found in the pill or variations in purity. They die because we all react slightly differently to an ecstasy tablet.

It’s just like alcohol.

There are some days where it doesn’t really affect us. There are other days where it hits us hard. There are some days we take more than we can handle – and other days where we just can’t remember how much we had.

But – unlike alcohol – when people take ecstasy they sometimes die.

What ecstasy does increases the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. This has the effect of increasing the heart rate and causes muscle twitches. Occasionally this can result in a person going into a coma or dying.

Other long-term risks associated with the drug include memory and attention impairment, lethargy, decreased emotional control, depression and an increased risk of mental illness.   A single ecstasy tablet can alter the balance of chemicals in your brain for up to three years.

Last year a video of teenager Jordy Hurdes went viral after he suffered a near death experience from the drug. You can still see the physical effect of the drug as he struggles to speak properly

And while many people who take ecstasy will be fine – others just won’t be.

Put simply – taking ecstasy is a bad idea. It’s never safe.

And here is the problem with pill testing. When you tell young people that they can minimize the risk associated with the drug – you get more people who take the drug. And while the percentage of people dying from rat poison decreases – you end up with more teenagers with health problems and more teenagers who die.

Currently only 3% of Australians regularly take ecstasy. If we compare this with 10% of Australians who regularly take marijuana – this is a victory of sorts.

In the words of Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews “If you want to talk about normalizing it (drugs) – I think that goes a long way towards it”.

Opposing pill testing may not be popular – 82% of young Australians might like the idea of pill testing – but it is the right thing to do.

Kieren Ash, President of the Labor Club

Opponents of pill testing are saying one of two things – that they are ignorant, or that they want young people to die needlessly. I hope that my Liberal opponent will admit to at least one of these things at a minimum.

I do not need to devote many words to convince you that any approach that says ‘just say no’ is doomed to fail. The fact that people will do what they want to do despite being told not to is why pre-marital sex, underage drinking, and illicit drug use remain so popular.

It took America 13 years and two amendments to their Constitution to realise it, but it’s taking much of the Western world more than forty years to own up to the fact the War on Drugs has utterly failed. Drug law reform advocates Dr David Caldicott and Dr Alex Wodak realise this, and are willing to risk arrest to provide free pill testing at music festivals.

Liberal Premier Mike Baird has a better idea – just don’t take pills. Try buying a pill at a music festival to see how well that works. But have a look at the fact that young people are taking bad pills and tragically dying, and you are struck with the fact we have to do something about it.

The problem is that what Baird wants to do – shutting down perfectly legal music festivals and cracking down on pill testing – is precisely the wrong thing. Prohibitionism means that young people will continue to buy pills and consume them with no idea whatsoever about their contents, running the risk of taking a bad pill and dying.

Baird is ignoring this reality and is consigning young people to potential death. The fact is that pill testing is a sensible step in the right direction, away from prohibitionism and towards harm minimisation.

The way it works is simple. Forensic chemists take a scraping of your pills, quickly test them, and tell you if the concentration of MDMA or any other ingredients are dangerous. They’ll encourage you not to take the pills, but ultimately the choice is up to you, which is as it should be as an adult.

Combined with drug amnesty bins and the abolition of sniffer dogs at festivals, we can do away with the punitive and dangerous approach that’s failing us as young people, and take a step towards a mature and evidence based drug policy of decriminalisation and harm minimisation.

Bob Carr showed it was possible when he opened the Kings Cross supervised injecting room in 2001. Now it’s time for Labor to show leadership again.

Matthew Carson, Member of the MQ Greens Club 

In the wake of more tragic deaths over the summer festival period, medical professionals are renewing calls for pill testing at music festivals, a move supported by the Greens.

NSW has a positive history with harm minimisation schemes, passing into law the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross. Fast forward to 2016, and it seems like NSW has regressed in terms of its drug policy. The hard line stance that the Coalition Government and NSW Police insist on continuing with has done nothing to prevent the tragic deaths of festival goers over recent years, arguably increasing the risk of accident through the use of sniffer dogs.

The head in the sand attitude of the Coalition government is exemplified by Baird’s insistence that abstinence is the only way to prevent deaths from drugs, or Deputy Premier Troy Grant’s admission that he doesn’t know how pill testing works. Furthermore, at the recent Parliamentary Drug Summit in which Greens leader Richard Di Natale spoke in support of pill testing, not a single MP from the NSW Libs and Nats bothered to turn up.

Pill testing is common in Europe, and has a number of benefits all supported by evidence. It’s proven to change consumption behaviour (drug use is lower in Europe), and even has the ability to change (for the better) what’s available on the black market. This isn’t about condoning illegal drugs, as Premier Baird puts it. It’s about harm minimisation. It’s about saving lives.

If he was willing to listen, it might please Premier Baird to know that pill testing is not supposed to replace other forms of drug-use prevention such as education designed to promote abstinence. In fact, one of its major components is education. It provides the opportunity for a medical professional to have a face-to-face conversation with individuals, and provide them with vital information so that they can make informed decisions.

Regrettable though it may seem to the Coalition, the fact is that young people experiment with drugs despite their illegality. To prevent the tragic deaths that we have seen, something needs to be changed. Experimentation needs to be made safe. In pill testing, the NSW Government has an evidence backed solution at their disposal. If pill testing isn’t available the next time a tragedy occurs, the responsibility must fall on the Premier.