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ACT’s drug-testing trial could help end decades of backward policing

30 April 2017 2 Comments

Despite a long career as a professor of history and politics, I am still fascinated by the spread of, and resistance to, evidence-based policies that work to reduce crime.

In the Western world, pills have been tested at youth music dance events for almost 20 years, improving public safety and saving scarce resources. Yet Australia has been slow to accept such testing, while rushing to adopt expensive, tough, anti-crime policies not backed by evidence. Having accepted these expensive ways of making a bad problem worse, our governments often persist with such policies long after it’s clear they have passed their use-by date.

It’s not easy to evaluate policies to partially regulate illicit drug markets. But there is persuasive evidence that pill testing does, at least partly, convert more dangerous drug markets at youth music events into less dangerous markets. Some argue that young people would be safer not taking any drugs or not even attending these festivals. The main argument against this simplistic proposition is that young people are young people. They experiment with hairstyles, clothes, music, sex and drugs. They always have and always will. Older generations have an obligation to protect younger generations. And pill testing is one way in which we should try to protect Australia’s youth.

Partial regulation of drugs, in the form of pill testing, has much in its favour. We know that many, if not most, young people discard their pills after being told they contain dangerous ingredients. Pill testing also saves governments money, including by reducing the level of policing needed at such events and reducing significantly the level of hospitalisations.

In the 1980s, Australia was an early adopter of harm reduction in the form of needle-exchange programs and methadone treatment to slow the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. This didn’t just save many lives and many millions of dollars; it saved billions of dollars. The politicians from across the political spectrum who made these bold decisions advanced their careers and are still gratefully remembered. Yet our nine Australian governments continue to flood drug law enforcement with generous funding (causing plenty of collateral damage) while, at best, only grudgingly continue to fund harm reduction.

The arguments supporting pill testing are persuasive and are often made by health and law enforcement advocates with decades of relevant experience. Unfortunately, parliamentary politics is primarily focused on winning the next election. It can also be about threading effective policies through the political maze, while still surviving politically. As European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said recently: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it!”

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr would like to start a trial of pill testing at the ‘Spilt Milk’ youth music event this December. But his government will only proceed with it if detailed discussions over the next seven months are favourable.

People who support evidence-based crime policies and who want to see an end to the absolutist “law and order” approach in Australia should support the Barr government for its in-principle support of pill testing.

Ross Fitzgerald is an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books.

‘The Canberra Times’, Monday May 1, 2017.
Also ‘The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age online’, May 1, 2017.


  • The Age (Melbourne) said:

    ACT’s drug-testing trial could help end decades of backward policing — Ross Fitzgerald (The Age): “There is persuasive evidence that pill testing does, at least partly, convert more dangerous drug markets at youth music events into less dangerous markets.”

  • Colliss Parrett said:

    A truly testing time

    I disagree with Emeritus Professor Ross Fitzgerald (“ACT’s drug testing trial could help end decades of backward policing and policy towards behaviour”, CT, May 1, p14).

    Firstly, I am deeply dismayed at the use of the term backward for police drug policy – which is implemented within the national policy. By seizing 30-35 tonnes of drugs annually, police prevent about 15 million hits reaching our kids on the streets, saving untold lives.

    Health authorities aim for harm prevention of influenza, measles, diptheria, whooping cough etc, but for unacceptable reasons the aim against drug use is harm reduction, when it should be harm prevention.

    Drink-drive testing for alcohol is virtually 100 per cent accurate because authorities know exactly what they are testing for – alcohol. However, in the context of youth festivals or music events, the drug pushers use masking substances to confuse results. Too often this means drug testing can’t identify dangerous substances, and our youth become guinea pigs.

    As well, it nurtures a growing false sense of security in the belief that it’s okay to consume drugs, provided you are tested.

    Colliss Parrett, Drug Advisory Council Australia, Barton

    The Canberra Times, May 3, 2017

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