New Zealand officials recently announced plans to introduce nationwide pill testing at all major music festivals over the summer of 2019, a call to action that has only added fuel to the fire of Australia’s own national pill testing debate. Except we’re not tossing up if it should be mandatory at all festivals, Australians are still stuck deciding if it should be legal at all.
Although our closest neighbour and cultural relative, New Zealand’s pragmatic drug laws could not be further from the stark reality of Australia’s own policies. NZ Police Minister Nash stated, “The war on drugs hasn’t worked in the past 20 years, so it’s time to change to a more compassionate and restorative approach”. But while Australia continues to spend $1.5 Billion annually on that ambiguous ‘War on Drugs’, the Liberal Party in particular remains vehemently opposed to any progressive reform and will try in 2019 to introduce harsher penalties for minor drug offenses.
One such example that has received considerable media attention is NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s proposed discontinuation of Sydney’s premiere hardstyle dance music festival, Defqon 1. In 2018, two festival attendees died reportedly as the result of consuming illicit drugs, with another two hospitalised shortly after. These premature deaths are unfortunate and no family should have to endure the loss of a young person, but would they have occurred if the attendee’s had tested their drugs?
If we put aside people’s inalienable right to choose what they put into their body, and focus on the collective rights of party goers, it seems that the bulk majority of trouble free festival participants at Defqon 1 will now be punished on behalf of the 0.013 percent of the 30 000 people in attendance that made the news due to their poor decisions.
The Australian media is fascinated by the spectacle of death, especially when its related to the polarising topic of drug control, but seems to forget that we are surrounded by death every day. The events that unfolded at Defqon.1 are largely unremarkable compared to the 100 deaths yearly that occur at the hands of drivers impaired by alcohol in NSW alone. Even when there have been no deaths at a festival like Bohemian Beat Freaks, the AFP (Australian Fun Police) represented by the NSW Liberal Party and Police Force would still increase the cost of a mandatory police presence at a festival of 3000 people from $10 000 in 2018 to $200 000 in 2019. This is a blatant attempt at outpricing the festival organisers, and a ridiculous bullying tactic considering police at the 2018 festival were reportedly bored and inactive.
It seems we cannot expect common sense, or even evidence based reasoning, to dictate the decisions made by a Government which lacks any sort of cultural context as to what is best for the people it is allegedly trying to protect. Berejiklian wants to assert a strict ‘No means No’ policy based on outdated information without reformulating an effective solution, because that would require admitting that she and her party have been taking a counterproductive approach for the last two decades. It is extremely worrying that the NSW Police Force and Liberal party seem perfectly happy to persecute recreational drug users as enemies of society, despite the overwhelming majority of festival drug users being what we would consider normal people.
In Canberra, the 2018 Groovin in the Moo festival was permitted by the Labor Barr Government to host a drug testing kiosk where festival attendees could have their substances analysed. Over the course of the festival, two potentially deadly substances were identified in pills bought by party-goes, who then chose to dispose of the drugs rather than take them as intended. Contrast this with the NSW endorsed tactic of a drastically increased police presence and record breaking number of involuntary strip searches, and it becomes increasingly evident which approach genuinely aims to reduce the damage of illicit drugs, and which seeks to assert power over the people by force.
There are many agendas at play, but the two dominant agencies acting against the general safety of the populus are the Liberal party and the increasingly overbearing and militarised police force. Both these groups stand to gain something from maintaining a strict stance on drug prohibition, and are actively causing harm to their communities to secure their own political ends.
The Liberal Party has its voting base to consider, and while research shows that pill testing saves lives, keeping festival goers safe is not a high ranking priority on the Liberal agenda. Young drug users are unlikely to be Liberal voters regardless, and although this demographic will suffer the consequences of these laws, it is really the older more conservative generation that Berejiklian is appealing to. She means to maintain the status quo of prohibition as a symbol of authority and commitment to the absolute upholding of the law. By restricting education regarding drugs, the Liberal party can perpetuate widely held misinformed opinions and maintain the social stigma that invalidates anything relating to drug users as degenerate and dangerous. As for the Police Force, the War on Drugs provides police all over the world with an insurmountable task that continues to provide secure employment and ever increasing budgets as they conduct a domestic war against non violent civilians ‘for their own protection’.
Doubling down on a failing policy in an attempt to save face despite the abundance of contradictory evidence is the perfect summation of the mollycoddled mindset that sustains our nanny state. There are hundreds of more pressing issues that deserve the resources being wasted on a failed War on drugs. As a result, we see vast underfunding in related areas like family practice and mental health services. Instead of persecuting casual drug users, we should be educating them to the highest degree so they can enjoy their experiences safely. Furthermore, the number of true drug addicts would likely decrease as more support services and information is made available to the public instead of the iron curtain of prohibition obscuring the facts or spreading false information.
As countries like Portugal, The Netherlands, America, and New Zealand all tackle drug reform armed with evidence and a clarity of vision, Australia continues to dig its heels in if only as a show of independence and solidarity on the world stage. The lives impacted by our outdated drug policies are the lives of everyday Australians who deserve a fair go, and shouldn’t be considered a plague on society but rather as informed members to be trusted and protected. While it’s unlikely that the Berejiklian government will be candid about its errors and contribution to the recent ‘pill related deaths’, we can only hope that the upcoming electoral massacre in May 2019 will usher in some sensible policies and staunch the recent bout of festival overdoses.
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