To minimise harm, drug prohibition must end

Pill testing at Groovin’ the Moo music festival.

The recent pill testing trial at the Groovin’ the Moo music festival, demonstrated why pill testing is an effective harm minimisation activity but also why we need to end drug prohibition in Australia and to effectively regulate the quality and supply of drugs here.

The testing was a first for Australia and was conducted by Safety and Testing and Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE consortium). In all, 128 festival-goers made use of the pill testing service. The ACT police gave an undertaking to not harass anyone coming in and out of the testing area, but the threat of arrest would have put off many more people from seeking it out.

In all, 85 substances were identified from the pills tested, ranging from some "quite pure … high quality" ecstasy, as well as cocaine and ketamine, to substances such as toothpaste, paint and arnica, used to cut the drugs. Also discovered were a couple of highly toxic chemicals, including the lethal substance N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone), which has been responsible for a number of mass overdoses. Half of tested drug samples had no pyschoactive ingredients, a discovery that would have left some feeling ripped off.

The use of pill testing is a hard-won step that can save lives. The evidence is clear from an extended trial at music festivals in Britain last year. Its use at Groovin’ the Moo comes on the heels of pressure from the public and the medical community, leading the Victorian government to green-light a trial safe injecting room for drug users in North Richmond.

The Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre opened in 2001 and, as of December, more than 7000 overdoses had been treated there without a single death. That is thousands of lives potentially saved.

The responses to the trial have ranged from it creating a "legal free-for-all" for drug-takers (ACT Shadow Attorney-General Jeremy Hanson), to the “head-in-the-sand” attitude that while pill testing works, it may encourage drug use, and so the message should still be that people should “just say no” to drugs.

In reality, the policy of harm minimisation is common sense. Simply lecturing people against using intoxicants has never worked, and for as long as people use them, it is crucial to minimise the harm involved. Also, sites for harm minimisation, such as safe injecting rooms, bring those who use drugs into contact with medical professionals, allowing them to discuss their health and seek assistance for dependency issues.

However, while a step forward, such harm minimisation measures are not enough. It remains crucial to end the so-called war on drugs, which it is now known was launched by Richard Nixon in the US in order to crack down on African American communities and the left.

Allowing substances currently illegal to be left in the hands of the black market leaves the products unregulated and potentially deadly. It also treats the health issue of drug dependency as a legal one — with the subsequent targeting of low income communities and racial minorities.

There is growing consensus that prohibition has not only been a dismal failure but has in fact exacerbated harm to individuals and society as a whole, including the environment. (www.countthecosts.org/)

But the evidence is not just that it does not work, as former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer is among many top-ranking officials in admitting. The evidence is also in that a clear alternative does.

In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of illicit drugs. Decriminalisation allowed a range of services to be delivered to users and a massive shift in the attitudes towards drug use saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates.

Criminalisation and the associated lack of access to sterile injecting equipment helped to spread infectious illnesses such as Hepatitis C and HIV. Stigma and discrimination associated with illicit drug use has also created real barriers in relation to accessing critical health and social services for drug users.

The research all suggests the best way to minimise drug harms is through legal regulation.

Calls by the Greens for the legalisation of cannabis are welcome, especially if it allows for a regulated, government-run market. But it also stops short of the needed measures of ending prohibition more broadly and replacing it with heavily regulated control of the drug market.

Rather than an immediate, uncontrolled legalisation of prohibited drugs (based on free market principals), which would potentially be little better than prohibition, Socialist Alliance stands for the legal regulation of drug use and supply to help remove stigma and discrimination and provide the basis for a policy based on health promotion and harm minimisation.

[To read the full Socialist Alliance policy on Drugs, visit the website.]

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