The Latest Mass Drug Overdose Is Yet More Proof We Need To Change Our Drug Laws

Our politicians should be leading the conversation on drug law reform. Instead they're silent.

drug laws

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Last week nearly a dozen Newcastle punters were taken to hospital after taking ‘Blue Superman’ pills that were sold as MDMA.

Thankfully the 10 men and one woman (aged between 18 and 34) all recovered without longterm health consequences. But the mass overdose is another reminder of how Australia’s punitive drug laws are causing harm.

Unfortunately, instead of using this as an opportunity to revaluate our dangerous and outdated policies, police and politicians are doubling down on our nonsensical drug laws — a strategy that will likely result in more hospitalisations, and potentially even deaths.

When Will The Police Admit The Law Is Harming People?

In a statement released after the mass overdose occurred, NSW Police issued a warning to the public “about the dangers of illicit drugs”.

“You never know what it is in the pill you are about to take or what it may or may not contain,” said Newcastle City Duty Officer Inspector Shane Buggy. “You will never know how your own body may react with any substance you might take; whether you have consumed illicit substances before or not.

“There is no such thing as a bad batch. These pills are made by criminals in backyard labs and might be sold as one substance but are actually another.”

The statement has all the hallmarks of ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. But if the police are trying to actually help the people most likely to run afoul of dangerous drugs, it’s pointless.

Firstly it assumes that police repeatedly warning people about the “dangers of illicit drugs” is going to stop people from taking them. People aren’t going to stop taking drugs. They definitely aren’t going to stop because the police urge them to. That’s a reality lawmakers and the cops need to acknowledge.

Medical tests on the Blue Superman pills have revealed that, as expected, they aren’t MDMA but a potent form of benzodiazepine, a prescription drug. So the problem in this instance wasn’t even the consumption of illicit substances. It was the lack of information consumers had about the drugs they were buying, which leads us to the bigger issue with the police’s response.

The police themselves actually diagnosed the key problem, even if they didn’t realise it. It’s absolutely true that drug consumers are often unaware of what is in the pill or bag they’ve bought. It’s also true that they’re often made in backyard labs, and manufacturers and dealers will often lie about what they’re selling.

But that’s all a result of our drug law regime. A criminalised approach to drug use is what creates these conditions. And even though there are mechanisms to help steer consumers away from dodgy drugs, police and politicians still refuse to get behind them.

It’s Way Beyond Time For Pill Testing

Last month the ACT government announced it had given the go-ahead for the first ever pill testing trial at an Australian music festival. The trial was developed in consultation with the ACT Police for the upcoming Spilt Milk festival in Canberra.

Pill testing gives festival-goers the opportunity to have their drugs tested by experts on laboratory grade equipment so they can be sure of what they’re ingesting. The idea is to stop incidents like the Newcastle mass overdose.

The ACT proposal was controversial because opponents of pill testing argue it encourages drug use, but the Labor government acknowledged the risks and backed it anyway.

“We need to find the right balance between letting young people know it’s illegal to take drugs — they can be very harmful — but also being realistic because we’ve seen deaths at festivals, five in 2015 alone, so if that helps to keep people safe, it’s worth doing,” said the ACT’s health minister, Meegan Fitzharris, at the time.

Last week Spilt Milk’s organisers announced that the pill testing trial had been scrapped. The festival blamed STA-SAFE, the consortium running the pill testing operation, for not getting its documentation together, but pill testing advocates pointed the finger at the federal government and the ACT Liberal Party for the campaign they ran against pill testing.

Regardless of the exact reason behind the cancellation of the trial, the result is a huge disappointment. It reflects the complex political situation with state and federal governments sharing responsibility for different elements of drug law, but it also demonstrates the deep conservatism of our major political parties on this issue.

Pill testing is not a panacea. It is a relatively small measure with one simple consequence: improving safety and reducing harm. The fact that Australian politicians haven’t endorsed it and rolled it out across the country is an indictment on them.

Blocking pill testing at Spilt Milk isn’t going to somehow discourage drug use. All it will do is increase the chances of people overdosing or having adverse reactions to whatever they consume. And while politicians and police might issue statements expressing concern and warning against drug use, there should be no doubt: they are responsible for failing to support measures to improve public safety and they should be held responsible.

Will Anything Change?

As we enter festival season we’re likely to see more stories like the Blue Superman episode. Australia’s heavy policing of drug consumption at music festivals, through sniffer dog operations and strip searches, should be scrutinised and evaluated against whether they actually do what police purport: improve safety.

Australia needs a much broader discussion around drug law reform, and there are some signs it could be on the way. A Federal Liberal MP has proposed Australia consider decriminalising drug possession, along the lines of the Portuguese model, to reduce harm.

How many more people will be hospitalised, or even killed, before our law makers and enforcers wake up?

Last year the Greens rewrote their drug policy and abandoned their blanket opposition to the decriminalisation of illicit drugs.

We’re still a while away from the comprehensive drug law reform we need, but a significant first step would be rolling out pill testing facilities to improve public safety. Even though the Spilt Milk trial and the Newcastle overdose aren’t directly related, the two incidents provide a depressing backdrop to our conversation on drug use.

A preventable mass overdose should have kickstarted calls for measures like pill testing. Our politicians should have led them. Instead, a few days later, the one trial we had was ditched. How many more people will be hospitalised, or even killed, before our law makers and enforcers wake up?

Osman Faruqi is Junkee’s News and Politics Editor. He tweets at @oz_f.