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Pill Testing and Politics: What is going on?

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Through my experience as a 19-year-old university student, I have witnessed my fair share of recreational drug use. And from my personal experience, recreational drug use is not all that different to drinking alcohol; both serve as mediums to escape reality, even for the briefest moments of time. So when political debate regarding pill testing ignited in late 2018 and raged throughout the summer festival period, to me it was a no brainer. If we have managed to legalise and regulate alcohol consumption, then minimising harm from pill use is the next logical progression in our law. If it is a question of saving young people’s lives, and drug-use is an unavoidable part of our social fabric, I see no reason as to why it shouldn’t be implemented. However, as someone who was overseas when the pill testing debate captured large media and political interest, I missed out on much of the public debate. As a young law student, I set out to form my own opinion, and explore the politics behind the debate.

I was fortunate enough to get the thoughts of Dr Tim Read, the Victorian Greens member for Brunswick in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, on the pill testing debate. As a former sexual health doctor and the Victorian Greens’ spokesperson for health (including drug law reform), he is well versed in harm reduction work and has been working to legalise pill testing in Victoria.

Pill testing itself: pro’s and cons

On a lazy Tuesday afternoon, when I should’ve been preparing to go to one of my lectures, I sat down and googled “pill testing”. I was surprised to find that pill testing has been legal in certain countries around the world for the last 25 years. Pill testing has been shown to alter the function of the black market. If a dealer’s product is identified to be dodgy, people will avoid it, leaving the dealer to either make a drug that is safer for consumption or stop producing. Also, the interaction between tester and drug user provides the opportunity for support and information to be passed across to them to minimise drug related harm. But for all the positives come the negatives. Many of the on-site tests that are cheap and fast do not produce the best results. If businesses are trying to save some money and opt for the cheaper options, it may end up doing more harm than good. Legal pill-testing can also give potential drug users a false idea that all drugs they buy are safe, which may still not be the case.

Dr Tim Read stressed that the ‘key value of [pill testing] is not so much the chemical information that people receive...its mainly the advice people get on the dangers. It’s the kind of information that you don’t get if your only interaction with the government on [drugs] is trying to get away from a sniffer dog.’ In regards to who will pay, Dr Read believes the government will at least have to pay some of the cost: ‘you could argue that festival promoters might contribute, but it should not be entirely user paid as that will reduce its uptake.’

Current political standpoints

Over the last 70 years, there has been a swing towards a prohibitionist approach against drugs. Dr Read believes that the current approach to pill testing is a ‘generational thing’ and a ‘war on young people’, which is ‘an unconscious reflexive response to scary behaviour that people in power do not completely understand and therefore disapprove of.’

Victoria has backflipped when it comes to drug policy. The Labor Andrews Government in 2017 legalised medicinal cannabis after recommendations from the Victorian Law Reform Council, and after a change in election policy, established a safe injecting room trial in Richmond. Politically, these have been some of the first and only approaches in Australia of treating drug use as a health issue, rather than a police issue. However, on the topic of pill testing, the Andrews Government changed tact. In January 2019, when the Victorian Legislative Council cross-bench pushed for the legalisation of lab-grade pill testing, the Health Minister Jenny Mikakos utilised police evidence to refuse these calls. The contradiction perhaps shows the prioritisation of political expediency. Dr Read speculated on this conclusion, stating that the debate on pill-testing within Victorian Labor is ‘driven by conservative elements who might have some influence over Labor’, and that it is ‘possible that the police union might be opposed to it.’

Over in New South Wales, the Liberal Government is fixated on maintaining the war on drugs. Throughout the pill-testing debate, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has withstood mounting pressure to implement pill testing and continued its tough on drugs approach. The Berejiklian Government has announced an inquest into the deaths of people at music festivals, a $400 on-the-spot fine for possession at festivals, a 20-year prison sentence for providing someone with a drug that leads to their death and a new festival licencing scheme that will heavily regulate festivals that have been deemed ‘high-risk’ for drug-related death and illness. It has been argued that these restrictions will force much of the festival industry interstate.

From my research, a government’s action on drug policy is largely rationalised on how they treat the issue. If they treat drug use as a health problem, they are more likely to adopt harm minimisation policies that create a safer environment for drug use. But for the majority of governments, who treat drug use as a law and order issue, they maintain the status quo of harsh drug laws and even strengthen them in the wake of a public crisis as the Berejiklian government did.

The broader debate on drug use: harm minimisation vs. zero tolerance approaches

After trawling through news articles, party policies and political rhetoric, I have noticed two dominant approaches to not only pill testing, but broader drug trends. There seems to be two mutually exclusive policies to drugs that governments and parties rely upon, which to my delight was backed up by some quick research.

The First: Harm Minimisation

Harm minimisation rationale works off the presumption that both licit and illicit drug use is an inevitable part of our society, and that use occurs across a continuum from occasional to dependent use. Drugs that are illicit now are still considered illicit, but practical steps to try and minimise the harm experienced by using drugs are implemented. These can be things like pill testing and safe-injecting rooms, but can even be some more basic measures like handing out pamphlets on safe drug use. Currently, hubs such as festivals, nightclubs, event promoters and their websites, which could be really effective hubs for drug education, are threatened with closure if they speak about drugs. This information could help prevent harm from drugs. Dr Adam Winstock and Dr Monica Barratt in the Sydney Morning Herald mentioned that you should keep a month or more of distance between dosing MDMA. I had personally never heard of that from a medical view, but only from the idea that you have better highs when you take it less regularly.

The Second: Zero Tolerance.

What is arguably the prevailing approach to regulating drug use, the zero tolerance approach operates how it sounds; to ban all drugs in an effort to reduce drug-related harm. Harm reduction methods, like pill testing, are seen to encourage drug abuse, and to simply be a backdoor into reforming drug law more broadly. Zero-tolerance is all aimed at deterrence from partaking in drug culture, and is grounded in the jurisprudence of punishment and retribution. Politically, zero tolerance is popular because it reinforces compliance with the law as being insurmountable to personal indulgence. It is also a staple of conservative politics in Australia, with many still using it in campaign strategies. Leaders will often proport tougher sentences for drug dealers or increased police powers to search and destroy drugs. Being ‘tough on crime’, and thus maintaining the ‘zero-tolerance approach’, have been popular campaign slogans for recent Liberal election campaigns in Victoria and NSW.

Dr Read added that the politically easy option is ‘to demonise the festival-going, pill-taking section of the population’. From the perspective of a health professional, Dr Read outlined that a ‘basic principle of public health is that whenever you are dealing with people who are putting themselves at risk by whatever means, simply prohibiting what they’re doing and not entering into any discussion risks driving the behaviour underground and cutting them off from helpful protective advice’.

Where I have landed:

I am still in favour of legalising pill testing. There are still personal reservations from me on who should pay for it, whether it be individuals, businesses or the government. As someone who is very logical, and can detach the stigma from drug use despite seeing its effects, the arguments against its implementation do not come close to the strength of those in favour of it. To me, the war on drugs has not worked. We as a nation are still one of the highest consumers per capita of drugs and we continue to see the effects of not managing this trend. If implementing this measure ensures that people have the best chance of using their free choice to consume drugs safely, that works.

In terms of the law surrounding pill testing, I believe the second strand of the critical law theory jurisprudence is right; all law is politics. If pill testing does not fit the political agenda of the day, or the key influencers involved, then it simply will not be implemented. That trend will continue until the public tide sufficiently overwhelms law makers, or our various politicians embody leadership and tackle this issue for what it really is. It is a public health issue affecting real lives, and to ignore it for much longer is to the detriment of young people across Australia.

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