PILL TESTING AT MUSIC FESTIVALS – Should this be the future?

Criminal Law

PILL TESTING AT MUSIC FESTIVALS

By Yavin Kumar @ Sydney Criminal Defence Lawyers

The use of illegal drugs at music festivals is a major issue that law enforcement authorities face at almost every event that takes place in Australia, which also affects hundreds of partygoers who attend various festivals around the country every year. Illegal drug use during festival season is now also a commonly reported topic in the news, and many reported articles have discussed the arrest, hospitalisation, and in some cases, death of various partygoers that had in their possession, supplied, or used any prohibited drugs.

The use of illegal drugs has now formed a rather significant part of festival culture in Australia, and according to the most recent reports from the Government’s national drugs survey, roughly 43% of Australians had illegally used a drug. As emergency medicine specialist Dr David Caldicott has commented, “In the same way that people are always going to use drugs in Australia, they’re going to try to do so in such a way that they don’t end up in hospital”.

In the past few months, the topic of pill testing has once again been put under the spotlight, following the debate that was sparked following a decision by the Government to withdraw their previous approval to introduce pill testing at ‘Spilt Milk’, a music festival which took place in Canberra on 25 November 2017.

Drawing a line between the safe use of prohibited drugs and illegal possession and supply is a difficult balancing act – the main point in this ongoing debate is whether the interest of the Government and society are more oriented towards working together to save lives, or increasing the number of drug convictions in Court to punish offenders for their actions.

The concept of pill testing has been officially used as a service in the Netherlands since the early 90’s as a result of the Dutch Government’s growing worries regarding national drug use statistics. Instead of creating policies relative to the law and order of drug use, the Dutch Government launched the Drugs Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) which had three primary questions to answer:

  1. What drugs exist in the world?
  2. What are the trends of usage for these drugs?
  3. What are the risks associated with taking the drug?

DIMS labs in the Netherlands have a legal permit to handle illegal drugs for the purpose of scientific research, in order to learn about new drugs as they become available, and their effects. DIMS labs are also open to the public to bring in their own drug samples for testing, and also operate various on-site services at major parties and festivals around the country in conjunction with the Safe House Campaign. The information supplied at DIMS testing stalls at these events provide punters with information as to what the ingredients and purity of the drug, how much of the drug can be taken safely, and all associated risks with high usage or overdose.

The DIMS testing system in the Netherlands has been seen to have contributed greatly towards safe drug use around the nation, in the sense that it has been able to flag bad batches of certain drugs that can cause serious harm or death to users before they are disseminated into the public.

Building on from this, Portugal set a landmark case study for progressive drug policy, following the national decision in 2001 to decriminalise the possession of all drugs for the purpose of personal use, and treat the issue of substance abuse as a health issue, rather than an issue to be dealt with by the criminal justice system. The legal status of any drugs have not changed – they remain illegal, although the offence for possession will attract civil penalties or community service orders only, as well as treatment options if the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction is convinced that the offender has drug addiction issues after conducting an assessment.

The shift in attitude by the Portuguese Police and Judiciary from imposing punitive penalties for drug use to instead focusing on health, treatment, reintegration and rehabilitation for substance abuse is a positive step forward in the continuing global war against drugs.

Despite the positive attitude and rehabilitative responses shown by various countries in Europe and the American Continents, the position in Australia remains strict. When asked in 2016 about the possibility of having pill testing introduced into the Australian music festival scene, Police Minister Troy Grant comment that such a thing “won’t happen… it gives people a false sense of security that they pill test and somehow know the contents of [a drug] and it’s okay to consume. The clear message is it isn’t. It’s an illegal drug because it is dangerous, it is likely to kill you, or cause irreversible harm.”

Ex-Premier Mike Baird also had a similar argument to this, after reaffirming the Government’s opposition to introduce pill testing, just after Sydney-based festival Stereosonic had opted to become the first major music festival to welcome on-site testing in order to attempt to prevent overdose and death at the event. Baird commented that in allowing pill-testing facilities to be offered at festivals, “what they are asking us to do is to allow illegal drugs”, and that “taxpayer funded dollars will not be used to support illegal drug dealers”.

Baird’s advice to punters in support of pill testing was clear – “Don’t do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine”.

 

Given the strong drug culture that surrounds Modern-day Australia, the Federal and State Governments must begin to seriously consider the introduction of pill testing at music festivals, and follow the policies currently being used in countries such at Portugal in allowing for the safe use of prohibited drugs if they are for personal supply, and treating the war against drugs as a national health issue, not one that involves the criminal justice system. Further to this, the Police Force and Judiciary should work together with potential pill-testing organisations to implement policies that will provide safeguards for those who wish to take illegal drugs for personal use, after they have been tested, instead of pressing charges for possession for as little as one tablet of MDMA.

It is conceded that significant funding and communication between the executive, judiciary and the community will be required in order to adequately run the program, although the introduction of this initiative will be a welcomed move which will benefit all members of society.

 

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