On pill testing, don’t swallow prejudice dressed up as policy
We’re adding to the growing pile of Australian laws not based on evidence, says Greg Barns
THE Hodgman Government’s life-threatening refusal to allow pill testing for those who enjoy using drugs at music festivals is a prime example of the sort of decision making that former NSW Treasury secretary Percy Allan described last week as a “national disgrace.” Mr Allan, who now chairs the Evidence Based Policy Research Project, was referring to the depressing “lack of rigour and transparency in public decision-making,” where public policymaking is “rarely based on evidence and consultations”.
Work by the Institute of Public Affairs and Per Capita Australia – Right of centre and Leftist think tanks respectively – shows that over the past 12 months only 30 per cent of legislative initiatives could be said to have been the subject of intellectual rigour and evidence-based input. Into that 70 per cent of poor outcomes we can add the continued ban on pill testing in Tasmania.
That the Hodgman Government is behaving with no regard for human life on this issue was manifest in the “just say no” comments of former health minister Michael Ferguson. Mr Ferguson was channelling Nancy Reagan, the former US president’s wife who infamously said about drugs in the 1980s, “just say no”. Naturally she didn’t mean her coke-snorting friends in Santa Monica or the pill-popping housewives of the Republican Party. Surprisingly no one listened to Nancy and drugtaking in the US skyrocketed.
So if the Hodgman Government, and the ALP for that matter, were to lift themselves out of the populist mire and join the 30 per cent of cases which the IPA and Per Capita found were decisions taken by governments that were evidence-based, what might happen with pill testing?
For starters the Hodgman Government and ALP might read and digest the exhaustive work of the Victorian and NSW coroners who both recommended pill testing as a means to save lives. They would note these findings came after extensive evidence and submissions from experts, families of loved ones who have died taking pills, and the facts of each investigation into these preventable deaths. They would look at the 20 or more countries where pill testing is part of the evidencebased response to drug use. And finally they would listen to Mick Palmer, the former Australian Federal Police commissioner, Nick Cowdery, the former long-serving NSW DPP, and Australia’s leading medical professionals in the field, Alex Wodak and David Caldicott. They might also listen to a politician who has bothered to inform herself of the facts, as opposed to believing the rubbish from police and people like Mr Ferguson. Ruth Forrest in the Legislative Council, along with other MPs, is pleading with the Hodgman Government to listen to the evidence.
But instead here is what will happen this summer and summers to come. Strip searches by police along with
sniffer dogs will see young people panicked into swallowing the pills they have on them. Ineffective searches of cars and bags will result in a few drugs being seized, but the vast majority of pills will circulate freely at festivals. There will inevitably be a death or serious harm and the Government will sheet home the blame to young people and music festival organisers.
Perhaps the ambulance union in Tasmania could take a lead from Victorian colleagues who are not prepared to sit on their hands while the Labor government of conservative populist Daniel Andrews also refuses to save lives through pill testing. On November 12 the Herald Sun reported the Victorian Ambulance Union “is offering to meet pill testing opponents halfway by urging a “back of house” testing regimen it says could save lives. Under the plan, drugs confiscated at festivals by police would be tested by on-site chemists. If they identified dangerous or dodgy substances, festivalgoers would be alerted via social media or electronic billboards. The union says the state’s emergency alert system could even be used to send text messages to people in the area to warn them about potentially deadly drugs, the newspaper reported.
Let’s heed what the union’s general secretary Danny Hill had to say about why ambulance workers overwhelmingly support pill testing at festivals. Because it is a “a means of saving lives, freeing up ambulance resources to attend to other emergencies and avoid assaults on our members”.
Perhaps the most deceitful claim of pill testing opponents and their gutless political friends is the claim that pill testing can cost lives. Alison Ritter from the University of New South Wales, and part of a global review of pill testing says, “We know that it doesn’t produce an increase in drug use … and there’s no evidence of harm associated with pill testing.”
Evidence-based policy on pill testing points one way but sadly we allow the political class to feed us prejudice and fear dressed up as policy. When it comes to saving lives we must ignore a government not prepared to lead.