Last week Mick Palmer, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner and former director of Australia 21, championed the use of pill testing in front of the nation on the popular political discussion show QandA.
Palmer has had a long and distinguished career in both law enforcement and legal practice. He is an Australian Police Medal recipient and a member of the Order of Australia. He describes being ‘dragged’ to the position he currently holds on pill testing due to a need to face up to reality.
‘I’m not pro-drugs… it’s about recognising the reality that, in society, people take drugs and we’ve got to deal with that as effectively, compassionately, and humanely as we can’
The special focus QandA episode showcased a range of perspectives on the pill testing debate which has become increasingly heated over the past few months, following the deaths of five young people in drug-related incidents at festivals across NSW.
Panelists arguing alongside Palmer for a harm-minimisation response to the issue included Marian Jauncey, head of the Kings Cross Safe Injection Room, and Dr David Caldicott, emergency medical consultant behind pill testing at festivals in the ACT.
Defending the abstinence argument was Assistant Police Commissioner Stuart Smith and Kerryn Redpath, a former drug user and current anti-drug educator.
The debate initially seemed primed for hyperbole and melodrama but surprisingly gave way to a measured and well-reasoned discussion. The overarching theme of the harm-minimisation argument stated that the scientific evidence is now irrefutable – and has been for some time – and that ineffective policy led by obstinate politicians was causing more harm than good.
Redpath and Assistant Commissioner Smith reiterated various forms of the ‘just say no’ argument and stated that the harm caused by drugs could be mitigated with more robust and effective policing. Redpath made a number of anecdotal claims based on her own experiences while Smith made the argument that police were there to protect people who can’t or won’t protect themselves.
At times, it felt as though the harm-minimisation side of the debate were hitting their collective heads against the brick wall of bad policy. If the comments made by Redpath and Smith represent the majority opinion of the Australian public, then there is still have a long way to go in this debate. It soon became apparent however that this position is increasingly held by an outdated status quo and that even law enforcement is beginning to concede.
Dr Caldicott made a number of key points on this shift. His pioneering work with pill testing at Grooving the Moo Festival was greenlit by law enforcement before politicians. According to Caldicott, himself and the police occupy a common position in the desire to minimise the harmful effects of drug taking. The police appeared far more receptive to the relevant literature than politicians.
This understanding was hinted at in a question put to Smith about the safe injection room in King’s Cross; if it works in principle for heroin, why wouldn’t it work for MDMA? Smith rejected the comparison on the basis that heroin addiction is treatable whereas ‘psychostimulants’ lead to ‘three days in hospital on life support’, something which, if true, would see ICU units overwhelmed with MDMA users every weekend – a verifiable inaccuracy.
Unfortunately, as Caldicott stated, there appears to be a lag in this country between the science and the policy. Australia is already well behind many western nations who have adopted more progressive drug policies. Palmer notes that Portugal’s decriminalisation model is the ‘success story’ in this area and Caldicott reminded the audience that the Portuguese policy was enacted by the present Secretary General of the UN.
‘Globally, this is changing dramatically by the year. Australia is going to look a little foolish very soon if we continue to prosecute policies that are more reminiscent of Nancy Reagan than of any other form of policy’.
While decriminalisation and broader drug reform was regarded by the harm-minimisation side as not only desirable but inevitable, pill testing is an area where the science is clear and we can begin saving lives right now if we act, argued Palmer.
‘People have died, and large numbers of people are being hospitalised, about which, at the moment, we are doing nothing’.
The present approach is clearly offering little except criminalisation and fuel for tabloid scares. In the UK, in the limited capacity where pill testing is offered, hospital admissions were down by 95% for drug-related issues.
What could be agreed upon by the panelists was the need to reduce drug-related hospitalisations and deaths. What Palmer advocates is educational intervention for those recreational drug users who may not have had genuine, helpful information presented to them on the dangers of the substances they intend to take.
‘Nothing that we’re talking about in terms of pill testing is offering a green light [to take illicit drugs]. I wouldn’t be associated with a green light process’
Although there is no one solution that will solve the vast and tangled issue of illicit drugs, the final comment of the night rather poignantly noted that ‘what we’re doing now is definitely not viable’. Where pill testing is concerned, ‘no-one has come up with a better option’.
The pill testing debate is likely to rage on in this country for the foreseeable future. However, it is apparent that the global trend is already shifting to a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to drug policy. The weight of evidence stands strongly on the side of pill testing, along with broader drug reform, and the majority of public opinion seems to be being swayed in favour of the notion.
It remains largely up to the politicians to find the courage to enact policy that will actually protect the lives of citizens, rather than their own seats. For now, the best we can do is follow Palmer’s example by calmly and rationally stating our case and allow the indisputable evidence to seep into the political and public consciousness.
This debate should give hope to proponents of harm minimisation; it is evident that we are making ground in the fight for sensible drug policy.