Summer is the season for music festivals, and kids doing what they have done for ever, experimenting with stuff.
Occasionally the results are catastrophic as a young person gets their life traumatically shortened either through a drug overdose or because they have tried a dodgy batch of something.
This is why the topic of allowing participants to test what drug they have in their possession has been topical and is important.
In Europe the service is regularly available. In Portugal for instance the decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs has meant that this can be treated purely as a health issue.
In Australia there has always been this hand wringing about the issue with critics saying that it will normalise and increase drug taking amongst the poor. But sense has prevailed and the first festival testing service has been conducted. And the test suggests that the service provides educational as well as safety benefits. From Claudia Long at ABC news:
Dr David Caldicott, clinical senior lecturer at the ANU Medical School and member of Calvary hospital’s emergency unit, led the pill testing team at Groovin’ the Moo after pushing for pill testing at festivals for a number of years.According to Dr Caldicott, there are two things that change young people’s minds about drug taking: “The idea that what they’re taking could kill them and the idea that they’ve been ripped off.”“We’re able to provide both of those messages,” he said.“What we can do is we can change — and it’s quite clear that we do change — how people consume the drugs to such a way that they are unlikely to get hurt.”Research from overseas similarly suggests that pill testing can change people’s decisions around drugs resulting in reduced harm to users.In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had affected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology with Durham University who led the trials, told the ABC: “About one in five service users give us further substances of concern to throw away after hearing their test result.”A 2003 German study overseen by the Bonger Institute of Criminology at the University of Amsterdam found a bad test result was more likely to result in reduced drug taking.And a survey by Check !t, a pill testing service in Austria, found that about half of those who had their pills tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug if it was found to contain harmful substances.
In New Zealand Police Minister Stuart Nash was asked what he thought about a similar service being offered here. His response was unambiguous:
Police Minister Stuart Nash wants to see all New Zealand music festivals kitted out with drug testing kits by next summer.
Nash’s comments come after illicit drugs, which contained traces of pesticide, were obtained by police in Gisborne at the Rhythm and Vine music festival earlier this week.
Nash said when it comes to the issue of drugs at music festivals, he wants to see a “more compassionate and restorative approach” when it comes to the use of drugs.
He said drug testing – whereby the chemical makeup and properties of a drug could be assessed before consumption – would be a move towards this approach.
“There are young people that go to these festivals that are taking drugs – I think if we continue to say ‘yeah, this is a bad thing,’ we’re not going to do anything to help mitigate the risk and we’re going to see people continue to end up in trouble.”
He is seeking advice on how other countries deal with the issue of drugs at festivals.
But not everyone was pleased:
Family First National Director Bob McCoskrie said the Government’s approach was “flawed and dangerous”.
“Pill testing will be seen by many younger people especially as a clear endorsement of drug use.”
He said it would send a message that illicit drugs are acceptable and can be safe and will worsen harmful drug use.
And John Roughan in the Herald expressed caution:
The philosophy behind drug testing holds that the law cannot stop people taking harmful drugs if they want to. Therefore it is more compassionate to help them minimise the harm if that is possible, and it will not be possible if the criminal law makes them afraid to seek help.
That will be true for many drug addicts but nobody knows how many have not become drug addicts because their use is a crime. We might get some indication if it ceases to be a crime.
In the meantime, the Government needs to proceed with extreme care. If taxpayers are going to provide drug-testing services at gatherings of young people, it should be done in a way that does not suggest society condones the drugs that pass. The message should be given that, legal or not, messing with mind-altering substances is sheer folly.
Russell Brown was more optimistic and had this to say after the discovery of a drug sample at Rhythm and Vines with traces of paint and pesticides present:
[Drug testing at festivals] looks like it’s coming. We seem to have reached a point where politicians, police and health agencies are on board with realistic harm reduction strategies. A point where, however flawed, an alert has been issued to people who may consume something very harmful.
What needs to happen next is to allow this to be done properly. As Dr Jez Weston of Know Your Stuff wrote in a series for SciBlogs last year, the psychology of drug-checking is just as important as the technology.
“Trust is critical for people in possession of illegal substances to bring them to us for testing. It helps that we’re not the authorities. We are a grass-roots organisation and many of our volunteers have attended, assisted, or organised festivals for more than a decade. Being members of the community we serve nurtures a higher level of trust, in what can be a very exposing situation for our clients,” Dr Weston said.
“We are going out of our way to provide a free service for our clients, so in a sense, it’s a gift from us to them. This sets up a mutual obligation. We’ve provided our clients with a service that they value; it’s now up to them to reciprocate by providing us with something that we value, namely making safer choices about their drug use.”
This kind of harm reduction, the kind that works, is about more than fancy machines. Dr Weston concludes: “The majority of drug users we see are not addicts or drug abusers. They are adults who want to have a good time, are willing to take on a small amount of risk to do this, and are keen to reduce that risk.
I hope the Government heeds the call for an urgent law change so that testing services can be the norm. And that it is part of an overall process to decriminalise possession of drugs. The overseas experience suggests that contrary to predictions of doom and gloom young people will not increase their use.
Who would have thought that a nanny state approach to the possession of drugs would have caused more harm than good and that trusting young people, giving them proper information, and making sure that they were not taking substances that contained poisons would have such a positive result?
Good on Nash for being unequivocal on this issue. I trust that he will follow this through with the necessary law change to make testing regimes the norm.