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

Mercury (Hobart) - - TALKING POINT - Ho­bart bar­ris­ter Greg Barns is a hu­man rights lawyer.

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.

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