A Bitter Pill to SwallowThe advice of my parents is something I am very grateful for and I will continue to seek it for as long as life gives me that oppor- tunity. I can’t recall any occasion when their advice didn’t put my best interests and wellbeing first and foremost. Back in 1970s and 80s society, some topics remained difficult to discuss, especially for me as a teenager, so upon these topics I never sought their advice. It was unlikely to be of much assistance anyway. Neither of them have ever smoked cigarettes, Dad only drinks alcohol on special occasions and Mum never at all. They didn’t really know any gay people or anyone that used illicit recreational drugs, and as one of five boys, they didn’t seem to know much about contraception either.
As the death toll of young people at music festivals mounts up, so too does public discourse on the pros and cons of introducing pill testing at these festivals. Pill testing offers festival goers the opportunity to have the chemical composition of their pills (illicit recreational drugs) rudimentarily examined and the results shared with the owner. Producers of illicit drugs will often cut the psychoactive ingredients of pills with fillers, some of which are highly toxic.
Pill testing can identify if such a substance is present, and alert its owner to the danger of consuming it.
Many people fear that allowing pill testing will be perceived as condoning illicit drug consumption and thus lead to an increase in illicit drug use. There is sufficient evidence available to demonstrate this fear is unfounded.
That said, pill testing is by no means a cure-all. It can identify what psychoactive ingredient a pill contains, but it cannot measure its potency or a person’s susceptibility to react adversely to it.
For those who take drugs at music festivals, the popular choice is MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), colloquially called ‘ecstasy’. MDMA was developed in 1912, but only declared a prohibited substance in the mid 1980s in response to the rapid increase in its use.
In no way am I suggesting MDMA or any other illicit drug is safe for consumption. Over the years I have seen too many lives ruined to know that any level of illicit drug use is not a good idea. It is well documented that the long term effects of frequent MDMA use include depression, anxiety, insomnia, memory loss, reduced libido, increased impulsiveness, aggressive behaviour and the impaired ability to pay attention.
But no matter how often people are advised against using drugs, despite the risk of ill health, death or imprisonment, they still take them.
Criminalising drug use has not and will not stop people using drugs. Using the criminal justice system to address a health issue is counterproductive in so many ways. Not only does it place huge demand on police resources, alien- ate young people from police and increase police distrust of young people, it also severely inhibits open and candid discussion between users and health practitioners. Any means by which we can increase the exposure of young people to those who can speak with authority on the potential dangers of drug use should be trialled and evaluated.
Unfortunately, many parents, including those who themselves have used drugs, don’t have the street cred in the eyes of their offspring to dish out such advice, and it quickly becomes apparent that the generalised warnings dispensed on the consequences of recreational drug use just don’t cut it with youngsters who are intent on trying drugs or already have.
I have always approached my role in public life with a belief that there is an incalculable number of people who know more about a particular topic than I do, so I seek out experts to help guide my decisions. Real experts, not the self appointed ones, but those who have demonstrated to me that they actually know what they’re talk- ing about. On pill testing I have listened, but I needn’t have, as my own personal experience is enough for me to know we should just get on with it now, before another young life is lost.
Bruce Notley-Smith is the State Member for Coogee. The views expressed here are his own, although we generally agree with them.