Pill testing is not the answer to drug deaths at music festivals

Xavier Symons
September 25, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Many Australians think that pill-testing will stop drug-related deaths at music festivals. The reality is that there's no magic solution to stop narcotics abuse in our society.

On the contrary, pill testing risks creating a culture of learned helplessness among post-Millennials, whereby adolescents and young adults believe that they are powerless to resist peer pressure and the pernicious overtures of a toxic festival drug culture.

The working assumption of the Australian pill testing lobby is that it is inevitable that young people will inevitably consume drugs at rave concerts and alternative music festivals, and that the best approach is one of harm minimisation.

Emergency physician David Caldicott described his recent trial of pill testing at Groovin the Moo in Canberra this year as aiming to create a "death-free festival" instead of a "drug-free festival". Caldicott said that his job as a doctor was focused on getting young adults home to their "mummies and daddies" and that, "more of that, [rather] than making a moral judgment" would create "a much safer festival environment".

Similarly, Fiona Patton MLC this week described pill testing as a necessary and urgent public health intervention that will "contribute to keeping young people safe and informed". "We are crying out and calling on the government to prevent any lives from being lost," the Reason Party leader told reporters.

This sentiment echoed the views of Federal Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, who last week tweeted, "we urgently need pill testing and harm minimisation to protect young people".

But how far do we want to go the path of framing adolescents and young adults as disempowered subjects who lack the capacity to make rational decisions and to say no to drugs?

While pro-drug politicians like Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale are keen to describe "drug use as a health issue", the reality is that teens and adolescents who consume drugs at festivals are typically not languishing in throes of drug addiction.

Rather, these mature adolescents and young adults -- let's drop the pretense of childish naiveté -- are casual, recreational drug users, who live an otherwise normal life.

Joseph Pham -- who died after an MDMA overdose at Defqon.1 in Sydney last September -- was a 23-year-old student at the Australian Catholic University whose interests included online games and Taekwondo. Diana Nguyen, 21, who died after consuming MDMA the same event, was a "vibrant, loving young woman" who was engaged to a boy she had known since she was 14.

Furthermore, young people know the risks that they take when consuming illicit substances. And sadly, they still choose to proceed with what is manifestly destructive behaviour.

Either that, or education in schools and community institutions is so woefully inadequate that teenagers can't tell the difference between the risks involved in consuming over-the-counter paracetamol and the potentially deadly consequences of popping ecstasy pills in the middle of sweaty mosh-pit.

Granted, pill testing helps festival-goers to identify whether the drugs they have purchased are contaminated.

But we are still left with the problem of festival-goers routinely consuming hard drugs -- and all with the imprimatur of health authorities, should we proceed with state-sanctioned pill testing at music festivals.

If we completely medicalise the drug problem, we end up with a culture in which casual drug users are immune from any moral sanction whatsoever -- even self-sanction when they reflect on their own behaviours and their responsibility for their actions.

It would also be naive at best to ignore the myriad of harmful effects of casual drug use and focus only on the problem of drug-related deaths at high-profile music events. Hard drugs like ecstasy and LSD, for example, are closely linked to a host of mental disorders, including psychosis, heightened anxiety, paranoia and severe depression.

According to 2016 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data, 37 percent of people 18 or over who had used meth/amphetamines in the past 12 months experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress.

It would be hypocritical for state governments to seek to fight the scourge of mental illness while capitulating to pressure from the pill-testing lobby.

Amidst all the political rhetoric (bordering on moral panic), we would do well to reflect on the broader cultural implications of the way in which we frame the issue of recreational drug consumption in our society.

Pill testing sends a message to young people that they are victims of their own drug culture, and that they cannot be expected to resist the pressure to consume drugs.

Rather than fuelling a victim culture among the post-Millennial generation, we need effective drug-education programs. These programs should not only focus on risks, but should also remind young people that they are the authors of their own lives, that they are respectable citizens and that they can resist (or exit) the bacchanalian culture surrounding contemporary music festivals.

To really liberate adolescents and young adults from the dark realities of the festival narcotics culture, we need to remind them that they are not just victims of circumstance, nor are they inert actors within a broader culture of psychedelic escapism. They are the masters of their own lives, and they have a choice when it comes to drugs.