Government and governance, Social policy, Health | Australia

19 September 2018

Gladys Berejiklian’s response to drug-related deaths at a recent music festival ignores evidence and could lead to more unnecessary deaths, John Coyne writes.

We should all be very clear that the drug-related deaths of two young people at the Defqon 1 music festival in Penrith over the weekend were both unnecessary and most likely preventable.

I am sure there’s a very real chance that had these young people been afforded the opportunity to test their drugs they would have found that their composition or purity represented a risk. They could well have then tossed the drugs aside and learnt a valuable lesson about their dangers.

Instead, these deaths serve as a reminder that Australia’s governments need to do more in terms of drug harm minimisation. In October 2017, Liberal party Federal Minister Craig Kelly told us as much when he argued that when it comes to drugs, “we are simply not going to arrest ourselves out of this problem”.

Yet on Sunday, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian took us back 30 years when she argued that: “anyone who is advocating pill testing is giving the green light to drugs that is absolutely unacceptable.”

Berejiklian’s position seems to ignore the evidence from the New South Wales (NSW) Government’s medically-supervised injecting centre. In May 2001, the NSW Government established Australia’s first medically-supervised injecting centre, and in its first six years of operation it managed 2,106 overdose-related events without any fatalities.

It seems that the NSW Premier has forgotten that Australia’s National Drug Strategy is based on three mutually supportive approaches: supply reduction, demand reduction, and harm minimisation.

Supply reduction has traditionally been seen as a frontline program that targets drug dealers and importers to reduce the availability of drugs. It’s believed that if we can reduce the number of dealers and the availability of drugs we may prevent drug use as well.

More on this: Make drugs a health issue

Ultimately, the supply reduction strategy attempts to reduce the availability of drugs using multiple approaches, including law enforcement activity.

Demand reduction has at its core a focus on reducing the desire or need for illicit drugs. Its many forms include early intervention, education, and measures designed to remove the user’s need from the drug-trafficking equation.

Harm minimisation is an attempt to reduce the drug-related harm experienced by individuals and communities. This component of the strategy is typically seen as the safety net for the other two policies, and accepts the reality that the other policies will never be completely successful.

If arrests and drug seizures are anything to go by, the NSW Police outside the Penrith venue did an outstanding job over the weekend in reducing the supply of drugs at the event. Arguably the event management staff sought to reduce demand by making their zero tolerance for illicit drugs well known. Unfortunately, there was no safety net for festivalgoers.

The story could have so easily been different. In April 2018, the Australian Capital Territory Government and the Australian Federal Police agreed to conduct a pill-testing trial at the Groovin the Moo music festival.

On the day of the festival, 85 substances were tested on behalf of attendees. Two of the samples were found to contain highly toxic chemicals. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) agreed not to target people who used the testing service; instead, officers went after those selling and trafficking drugs, resulting in one arrest.

It seems that in April, the AFP could well have saved two lives, and there was no unacceptable green light for users.

I am a staunch supporter of targeted supply reduction by police. I am also a supporter of domestic and international efforts to disrupt organised crime.

However, I believe that we need to double down on our efforts to minimise the harm experienced by illicit drug users in Australia. These efforts should include the decriminalisation of addiction and the provision of pill testing.

If we don’t, it seems almost certain that this summer there will be more unnecessary deaths.

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