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To Test or Not to Test - That Is the Question: The Pill Debate

By Madeline Playford and Zoe Ong

Music festivals are an important pastime for many young people. However, the recent wave of drug overdoses at music festivals in Australia has threatened their livelihood and re-ignited the controversial debate about pill testing.

So, how does pill testing work? Pill testing looks at the components of a pill to determine what it contains and its level of purity, to allow drug users to make informed decisions when consuming drugs. However, whilst the goal of pill testing is to reduce harm and save lives, opposition argues that it instead condones and accepts drug use, putting society in an awkward position regarding the legalisation and decriminalisation of illicit drugs.

Currently, European countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Austria all utilise pill testing at music festivals, with positive results. Research from Austria showed that 50% of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices, with two-thirds deciding not to consume the drug following the test. So, when partygoers are informed about what they’re actually consuming and the harmful toxins in some pills, they are deterred from taking them. The overall effect of this is a reduction in risky behaviour and deaths at events that are meant to be fun.

A final indirect benefit of pill testing is that it puts pressure on manufacturers to produce pure drugs, rather than adding other deadly ingredients, impacting directly on the black market, by publicly identifying products that are dangerous, shutting down distribution. So, if drugs are going to be consumed at music festivals, isn’t it better that it be made safe?

Can Pill Testing make Music Festivals Safer?

Like many things, there are two sides of the story. It’s important to note that positive results of pill testing may be drawing our attention away from a more sinister issue at hand. Taking illicit drugs is at its very core, an extremely dangerous thing to do. Taking illicit substances ends lives. Whether you overdose on these chemically crafted pills or not, they have endless consequences and can lead to debt, poor or broken relationships with family and friends, mental illness and death. So often contemporary media promotes ‘safe recreational drug use’ and it has become alarmingly apparent that many have become desensitized to the unforgivable risks involved. Pill testing and ‘harm minimisation’ of consuming drugs would open a door impossible to close. This new view on illicit drugs and the trend that comes with them has already caused irreversibly damaging effects on society’s overall view, absolutely blurring the risk versus reward logic that we use for so many things.

Pill testing at festivals, at its very best is rushed and more often than not inaccurate. The Parliament of Australia states that proper analysis of illicit substances can take days to occur and even then it is still hard to put into words just how dangerous it is. On site pill testing is also incredibly limited, with innumerable new drugs coming onto the market, their makers always one step ahead. Pill testing has far too many limitations to be deemed acceptable, with onsite testing incapable of critical data analysis such as concentration of ecstasy, methamphetamines and other substances. Most of these tests look for binders like rat poison and other toxins but don’t evaluate the dangers of consuming illicit substances as a whole. Pill testing does not test an individual’s tolerance to substances either, or their addiction.

At the end of the day, pill testing at festivals seems like a half-hearted foot in the door. It seems to be a generally well accepted way of stemming the blood flow of a much larger problem, a sensitive and incredibly unstable issue that threatens and does not discriminate. It should be known that pill testing at festivals is a less than subpar effort by people in power to brush over this widely spread epidemic. With contemporary technologies and a growing industry, illicit drugs could very well be the downfall of far too many. Whether we choose to accept it or not, a more cohesive approach is needed, by both our society and those in power that hold the ability to make impactful changes. It seems that we have reached a fork in the road, in which governments all over the world take a unified path. People in power, from this point forward should work together to crack down on the exportation and consumption of illicit drugs everywhere, by implementing harsher penalties or tighter first line defence, border protection.

However, if society deems it appropriate to accept this contemporary trend of ‘safe recreational drug use’, it is obvious that law reform is required, simultaneously allowing the use of drugs and stringent regulations on both manufacturing and consumption. Who knows, they might even implement a tax. Regardless of the outcome, the first and most important step into the foggy path ahead regarding illicit substances is acceptance of the risks and the unchangeable consequences that lay ahead.


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