By Warren Heggarty
We know that drugs (including legal drugs, and sometimes even prescription drugs) can cause mental health issues. Even with good quality control there is an element of risk. How much greater, then, is the risk of harm from illicit drugs, such as party pills?
Because so many young people have died or become seriously ill from party drugs at dance parties, some people are calling for pill testing at events so as to minimise the potential harm. But should we allow pill testing at the risk of legitimising drug taking? According to “The pros and cons of pill testing” by Matthew Thomas, expert views on pill testing seem to depend on whether you are into “harm minimization” or “zero tolerance.” (Thomas, 2018)
In public debate on the subject, you will notice a division straight down the centre with no overlapping areas of agreement. The two sides are polarised and there seems little hope that they will ever see eye to eye. Worse, if one side gets its way, the other side will not stay quiet about it. It’s always like this with emotive issues.
Thomas explains the harm minimisation sides: “From a harm minimisation perspective, completely eliminating a drug or drugs from society is an unrealistic aim that typically causes more harm than good. As a result, we would do better to restrict the damage caused by them, even if this means an overall increase in the use of drugs.”
An example of this approach is shown in an article published on the website of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales by Professor Alison Ritter. Ritter says that under a drug checking regime, the quality of drugs on the market comes closer to matching user expectations. She also said that particularly dangerous drugs tended to “leave the market.” She cited Austrian research that said drug testing changed young people’s views about drugs. In cases of negative results, young people said they would warn their friends. Ritter also says that pill testing – or drug checking as it’s known in Europe – provides feedback to users on the content of illegal drugs, allowing them to make informed choices.
“Australia is internationally applauded for our harm-minimisation approach to drugs, but we have failed to introduce pill testing, even though it is an intuitively appealing strategy,” says Ritter.
Intuitively appealing to her, perhaps, but not to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian or Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who exemplify the “zero tolerance” approach.
Thomas explains:“From a zero tolerance standpoint, illicit drug use should be prohibited under any circumstances. Harm reduction measures—such as pill testing—it is argued, can encourage and enable drug use, keep people stuck in a pattern of addiction, and serve as a Trojan Horse for drug law reform and the legalisation of drugs.” (Thomas, 2018)
After 25 people were admitted to hospital for drug-related illnesses over the 2019 Australia Day long weekend, the Premier doubled down on the government’s position on pill testing: Ms Berejiklian said that she didn’t want pill testing to give people a “green light to take these drugs.” (Truu, 2019)
“Do not take ecstasy. It can injure you for life or it can kill you,” she said. (Truu, 2019) Health Minister Brad Hazzard described talk about pill testing as a “side show.” (Truu, 2019)
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians criticised the Premier’s views in an open letter. The letter begins: “There is sufficient evidence to support pill testing trials at festivals,” said the RACP’s Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “Ideally, we would all like young people and the wider public not to use drugs illicitly, however, the reality is that they do in large numbers and the moral message to abstain from taking drugs is not getting through.” Their message was that “Pill testing saves lives.” (NewsCorp, 2019)
What about the provision of paramedic services? What kind of message does it send when we increase the level of paramedic care available at dance parties? Speaking of the Australia Day incidents, Dr Sarah Coombes of NSW Ambulance Service said “hard decisions” would have to be made about what level of medical support is provided within festivals in the future. This is because, “A number of patients who were treated likely would not have survived this event if the increased medical support had not been on site.” (Truu, 2019)
NewsCorp. (2019, January 18). Royal Australiasian College of Physicians smack down Premier Gladys Berejiklian:
Ritter, A. (n.d.). Six reasons Australia should pilot ‘pill testing’ party drugs. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from NDARC National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the Univeristy of New South Wales:
Thomas, M. (2018, May 2). The pros and cons of pill testing. Retrieved from Parliament of Australia Parliamentary Library:
Truu, M. (2019, January 28). NSW Premier doubles down on pill testing stance following horror drug weekend. Retrieved from SBS News: