We know what we want from pill testing: fewer deaths of young people who are not criminals, not addicts with tragic hidden histories, just kids who think they are immortal. "It could have been your child" haunts anyone trying to answer the problem of drug overdoses at music festivals.
Overwhelmingly, of course, the costs of illegal recreational drug use involve the collision of criminality and addiction. Most of us ignore it because neither world is familiar to many of us, despite drug abuse being a major cost for government. Millions of other people die from the consequences of drug abuse, legal and illegal.
Overdosing at a music festival is different; it falls outside the well understood pathology of drug abuse. It can happen to people like us, a description of class-thinking made famous by the masterful Dominick Dunne 40 years ago.
And when PLU, people like us, and our children get hurt, we want solutions that ensure we remain people like us; away from the courts, away from those sad rehabilitation centres, detox units and any association with life's more complex tragedies. We want solutions that treat the problem for what it is; kids taking risks because they believe they will have a better time.
No, stay with me, this is not to disparage PLU, indeed I am deeply PLU myself, but if we solve the problem of party overdoses we might also do better with pathological drug abuse, which really would be making inroads into the many wicked social problems Australian governments struggle with but over which they have never prevailed.
I do not understand why pill testing has taken off as the solution to this tragedy. It is certainly a mechanism for talking to people about to take an unknown substance in uncontrolled conditions. The last chance to stop someone making a potentially fatal mistake.
The downsides are obvious and well-traversed: testing may give the user a false sense of security, it self-selects people already nervous about taking the pills and does not reach the pre-fuelled or higher risk takers.
Pill testing conflates the risks of contaminants with the risks of the active ingredients themselves.
Oh what big mistakes we make, when first we practice to conflate.
Conflation bedevils good policy so often but in the case of party pills identifying contaminants wrongly reinforces the notion that the active ingredients themselves are safe. They are not, which is why they are banned.
Unlike prescription mood-altering drugs, of which there are plenty, party pills have not been tested for safe dosage levels or side effects.
The future of mood-altering recreational drugs is another subject altogether and, yes, we can all laugh at the idea of kids going to music festivals wanting to feel their mood has been altered safely but that's the fundamental premise of western drug regulation. Do no harm.
The other great difficulty of pill-testing is evaluation: the development of a reliable model to test whether it does or does not save lives.
We cannot ethically do double-blind experiments or randomised control trials. There is no reliable mega data available and huge numbers of variables.
We could, of course, report on how many kids showed us their pills and what the spectrometer (yeah, sure) told us were the contents. We will not know how many consequently did not take a pill that day; we will only know how many said they would not.
This is not high-quality evaluation and it is unlikely to instil confidence into any worried parent, although it may, ironically, embolden their child.
Effectively reducing party pill use, either at music festivals or nightclubs, needs to respond to a heady cocktail of young people, desire for a crazily good time, belief in immortality and distrust in the advice of oldies.
Pill testing is a marginal, doubtful distraction and it is a great shame it has taken on the importance it has when we can better build on previous Australian efforts to reduce risky behaviours.
The successful containment of HIV AIDS, recent reductions in tobacco and alcohol use, skin cancer, childhood diseases and disease epidemic reductions have all followed well-planned public health campaigns.
First, shock the country with national evidence, anecdotal and statistical, about the nature of the risks. Present case studies of young people with permanent brain damage, liver damage and kidney failure, PLU. Talk about it, graphically, in secondary schools. It sure worked for smoking and who could forget AIDS' grim reaper. Yes, they were legal drugs and activities whereas party drugs are not but the principle is the same.
Build confidence in the medical science that says these drugs are unsafe.
Reassure festival goers this is not to stop them having a good time. Minimise police presence and intrusive bag searching; the coronial inquest into festival drug deaths heard that Melbourne woman Alex Ross-King died after consuming almost three MDMA capsules before arriving at a festival because she was afraid of being caught with them by police.
Start putting real research effort into antidotes. We know what to do. It is harder than pill testing but it might actually work.
- Pru Goward is a former NSW Liberal MP.
- SMH/The Age