At the Stereosonic festival last year, Sylvia Choi died after consuming a contaminated ecstasy tablet. Unfortunately Sylvia’s narrative is all too familiar – a bright future extinguished at a music festival that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
This summer, many young people will also choose to consume various illegal substances in pursuit of a good time. Regardless of their personal choice to break the law, most would agree that they should not have to die for it.
We have a moral obligation to minimise the risk of harm to festival-goers or “festies”. Health professionals have the technology to act on this moral imperative – drug testing. What they don’t have is permission from our politicians and law enforcement agencies. The truth is there needn’t be more tragedies like Sylvia’s: her death may have been prevented if evidence-based drug-testing facilities had been in place.
Australian politicians have typically endorsed a deterrence-based approach to drug use at music festivals, with a strong police presence and drug dogs to catch offenders. Although deterrence methods are undoubtedly well-intentioned, evidence suggests that they are ineffective at protecting Australians from the harmful effects of contaminated substances. In fact, some evidence shows that drug dogs may actually increase harm, as frightened festival-goers hastily consume large quantities of drugs to avoid detection. And few drugs are deposited in amnesty bins.
Drug testing is about testing drugs, not potential users. It adopts a more humane approach, providing information to users on the content of drugs. Ecstasy pills, for example, often include particularly harmful substances like PMA or 4-MTA.
Drug testing encompasses a range of testing facilities that allow festival-goers to check the content of their drugs and change consumption habits accordingly; overseas, this can vary from informal Marquis testing kits to advanced pharmacological analysis facilities. One Manchester club, The Warehouse Project, piloted a scheme allowing clubbers who managed to get through security to have their drugs professionally tested.
A major review in Europe found that two-thirds of drug users wouldn’t consume contaminated drugs and would warn friends of any harmful results. Thus, drug testing provides a significant opportunity to reduce drug-related harm and consumption, as well as engaging festies in counselling about their drug-taking behaviour. Even the European Union recommends it.
So it may come as a surprise that drug testing has received little political support in New South Wales. Mike Baird and his government continue to prevent health professionals from providing drug-testing services at music festivals.
This stance – a lack of political permission – may lead to the preventable deaths of more young Australians. It is time for our politicians and police to adopt measures to support the health of young people.
Is preventable harm unnecessarily politicised?
Preventable deaths from contaminated substances are a political choice. So why are our politicians so opposed to an evidence-based intervention that prevents drug-related harm?
Australians are the leading consumers of ecstasy worldwide. Blindly denying the presence of drugs at festivals is naïve, and ideological opposition to harm reduction through drug testing is counterproductive.
We are not arguing for the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. Rather, we believe young people should have access to testing services as a means to empower informed choices about drug consumption. Political leadership is the missing ingredient.
There is precedent for a preventive health approach to safe drug use. Australia has received international acclaim for leadership in harm-minimisation strategies by opening the Kings Cross supervised injecting centre, the first of its kind in the English-speaking world. Drug testing offers a similar opportunity to encourage healthy behaviours and promote harm-reduction strategies among young people.
But how much does it cost?
If these arguments haven’t been persuasive, let’s look at the numbers. While the majority of festival-goers who consume drugs suffer no adverse effects, significant harms can and do occur. Every year 400,000 young Australians take ecstasy, and many have no idea what’s really in their pills. This lack of awareness can be fatal: in 2015, seven young people lost their lives after taking ecstasy, and six of these were at music festivals.
Annually, taxpayers spend A$1 million per jurisdiction maintaining a force of drug dogs, and we know that this use of public dollars is ineffective at reducing drug use and harms. Drug testing, on the other hand, could be implemented for less than one-tenth of this cost and has proven effectiveness at reducing drug-related harm.
Finally, it is worth emphasising that campaigners are not requesting government funding to implement drug testing; they are simply asking for permission to provide drug-testing stations that will prevent unnecessary harm to festival-goers. This is a privately funded public health intervention with moral, health and economic returns on investment.
How would we implement it?
Drug testing provides an opportunity for health and legal professionals to collaborate productively and reduce harm to young Australians. In Europe, political support has enabled drug testing to exist in a grey area of the law; ad-hoc local arrangements and special agreements with police help circumvent the need for complex legal reform.
The European experiment has demonstrated that a commonsense harm-reduction strategy is achievable with collaboration between health professionals, law enforcement officers and festival organisers. There is no reason why a principled politician, or political party, could not lead Australia to follow this example.
Prohibiting the use of drug testing continues to prosecute drug use as a criminal issue. Spending valuable resources to target individual users diverts attention from drug manufacturers and distributors, as well as representing a missed opportunity to make a meaningful impact through harm reduction.
A drug-testing strategy addresses this health challenge at its source – in this case, music festivals – rather than waiting to treat young people in emergency departments. Ultimately, drug testing is a safe, cost-effective and ethical way to achieve this outcome.
Individuals can already buy cheap testing kits themselves on the internet. Such kits are better than nothing. But it is surely preferable that if an individual is going to test the drugs she or he is proposing to take, that testing is as safe and reliable as possible and administered by a professional.
Authors: Julian Savulescu, Sir Louis Matheson Distinguishing Visiting Professor at Monash University, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford