It’s time to put opinions and prejudices aside and actually have a proper, well-structured trial to gauge whether pill testing at festivals actually does provide any benefit to reducing the harms of illegal drugs.
There is a rush to judgment in some quarters which is understandable because this is an emotional issue, no doubt about it. The effects of illegal drugs can be devastating, and the recent deaths of two young Australians has put the issue of pill testing back into the spotlight. As the CEO of a charity dedicated to educating young people about the harms of both legal and illegal drugs, and as the parent of two young Australians; one at University and the other having just completed High School, I share the same concerns as millions of Aussie parents. The safety of our young people is paramount.
Which is why, rather than trying to shut down debate on contentious issues like pill testing, we need to better understand the approach and evaluate whether it could, in fact, save lives.
To be clear, the only way for young people to ensure their own safety is to not take drugs in the first place. That is why educating young Australians about the harms of both legal and illegal drugs is one vital strategy in our armoury. Every young person needs to understand the dangers.
At the same time, young people are more prone to taking risks, especially when alcohol is also involved, or where they are in an environment conducive to drug taking, or pressured by peers. How many of us, as parents, can put our hand on our heart and say we didn’t do something irresponsible or risky when we were young? Yet the threats today are far greater than they were for my generation. The availability of illegal drugs as pills is unprecedented and their cost is relatively inexpensive compared to alcohol, which itself contributes to massive harm in our community every day.
I’m not advocating pill testing per se, but I do believe that a series of structured trials, delivered responsibly, should be considered to properly evaluate whether pill testing has any role in preventing harm. But only if it is an avenue for effective drug education. Pill testing should never be about telling young people that a drug is safe to consume. Pill testing should be about explaining what the contents are (which is scary enough once you realise what they contain), and advising that no illegal drug is safe. It needs to be an opportunity to outline the risks, even to the point of providing examples of how drugs have taken the lives of young people. Done effectively, we might find that an increasing number of people choose to put their tablet in the bin rather than take the risk, making pill testing an actual deterrent. It is at least worth exploring if such an approach can make a difference.
As parents we desperately want our kids to make good choices and it’s only natural that we worry about their wellbeing at pubs, clubs and festivals. Thankfully in most cases our kids will make those right choices, but these days it takes only one mistake, just one tablet, to end a life. We have seen this happen time and time again to loving families over many years. I’ve personally met a number of parents who have lost a son or daughter in this way and I can’t begin to describe the devastation it causes. As one parent said to me, “No parent should ever have to bury their own child.” We should do whatever we realistically can to avoid this happening to other Australian families.
Two things are abundantly clear. The criminal gangs and drug cartels are not going to stop manufacturing illegal drugs and we can’t stop their importation and distribution, as hard as we try. Just as these criminal groups become ever more creative in their approach, we too have to be open to creative solutions to keep our young people safe.
Michael Fawsitt is the CEO of Life Education Queensland, a non-profit organisation that provides health education to more than 200,000 Queensland young people each year.