Last year, at a music festival in Canberra, a group of local doctors and nurses set up a pill-testing tent, where you could walk in with your illegal drugs and discover their chemical composition.
“I was told this was ecstasy,” a visitor might say, and the medical team would test it using a state-of-the-art machine and provide the results.
Maybe it was ecstasy. Or maybe just aspirin. But sometimes: “This is adulterated and very dangerous.”
The local police approved the experiment. Outside the tent, they maintained their customary anti-drug stance, searching people at the festival gate, confiscating drugs and arresting dealers caught selling to the crowd. But they also didn’t target people as they entered or exited the tent. And, after the festival, they chatted to the medical team, learning about the drugs that were in circulation in their town.
Most of Australia’s political class — and much of the news media — reacted with dismay. The pill-testing, they said, normalized illegal drugs, telling young people “it’s OK to take drugs if they have been tested,” as one senior politician argued. In the left-leaning state of Victoria, the administration of Daniel Andrews quickly ruled out copying the experiment. So too did Gladys Berejiklian, the right-leaning leader of New South Wales, who promised an expert inquiry into preventing drug deaths at music festivals, with every solution to be considered — except pill-testing.
But then the deaths began to mount.
In Berejiklian’s home state, there have been five drug deaths at music festivals since September 2018. We’ve seen the photographs and read the profiles of some of the young people who have died — one a rugby player, another just engaged to be married.
The most recent death came this past weekend. A 19-year-old woman, Alexandra Ross-King, died on Saturday after taking an unknown substance at FOMO, a large Sydney festival. This time her grieving family joined the political debate — in support of pill-testing. “If it saves one life; one life is a life. And these are children,” the young woman’s grandmother was quoted as saying.
Some may wonder why there are so many deaths at music festivals, rather than at clubs or parties, where drug-taking is also common. The awful answer: Drug dealers use festivals as a way of to get rid of poor quality, adulterated drugs, according to experts. At festivals there is no continuing relationship with the customer; they just sell and then disappear into the crowd.
That’s an evil hard to understand. Yet the recent spate of deaths may have shifted opinion on how to respond.
In NSW, the opposition Australian Labor Party has begun talking about pill-testing as a potential option should it win in the upcoming March election.
Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison is avoiding taking a stand: “You have to get the balance right on this," he said. "This is a state matter and I am not going to complicate that any by offering commentary on which is the best option.”
Proponents of pill-testing say it’s simple: It will save lives. They say some European countries have had it for decades.
Personally, I have struggled with the issue. I’ve worried about normalizing drug use. I’ve worried about the morality of telling a young person that their drug is safe to take.
My concerns survived right up to having a long discussion on my Sydney radio program with David Caldicott, the doctor who conducted the tests in Canberra.
Australia is sometimes a hard country for outsiders to understand. It has elements of deep conservatism, combined with many socially progressive urges. Yet deeper than this left-right battle, there’s a preference — occasionally welcome — for the practical against the philosophical.
I don’t want to overplay this. We have endless culture wars. We have battles over flags, sexuality, anthems and the words people use.
But, just sometimes, our old practical urge comes to the rescue. During my interview with Caldicott, I kept being reminded of that traditional Australian pragmatism. There was no praise of drugs, or of people’s right to take them; instead an embrace of what he called “harm minimization.”
We’ve been here before. Australia was a bastion of homophobia when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s. But that didn’t stop us from being a world leader in harm prevention — distributing condoms, empowering sex workers, establishing centers where heroin users could swap a used needle for a clean one. Nearly 20 years ago, a church ran a supervised injecting room in Sydney, at the invitation of the government. It was a place where addicts, using drugs which they had purchased illegally, could consume with medical help — just in case things went wrong.
The debate then was like the debate now. Did this not normalize drug use?
That facility is still going and, by and large, is no longer controversial. Locals in Sydney’s Kings Cross are pleased they are no longer stepping over used needles and, sometimes, over dead bodies.
With the pill-testing tent, my moment of conversion came after I understood the boring, medical tone on offer.
When young people take pills at a music festival, it must seem exciting. Smuggling the drugs past police. Buying them from a dealer. There’s the sense of being defiant, of taking risks.
And then — hopefully — those young people are tempted into a tent. Inside — I apologize to any doctors or nurses who are reading — are some quite dull people. They care about science; they are into facts; they understand the delicate, wonderful miracle that is a human body.
Imagine yourself a young person, being engaged by those dull, loving, wonderful people — just when you are about to take something.
Pill-testing, I finally realized, is not about normalizing drug use. It’s about medicalizing it.
I hope Australia embraces pill-testing, just as it embraced the supervised injecting room.
But we must act fast. How many Australians will die before we remember this significant part of our identity — that we are a gloriously practical people?