Pubdate: Sat, 05 Mar 2016
Source: Canberra Times (Australia)
Copyright: 2016 Canberra Times


Of all the conflicts that the United States embarked upon in the past 
100 years, President Richard Nixon's war on drugs - launched in June 
1971 - was arguably the most futile.

The aim was to reduce the illegal trade in drugs by criminalising 
their production, sale, possession and consumption. An army law 
enforcement agency equipped with all the resources the most 
prosperous and technologically advanced nation on earth could muster 
was enlisted to reinforce this prohibition.

However, for all the national treasure expended and the millions of 
lives lost or blighted, the war has achieved little. Estimates of the 
size of the US' illicit drug trade are far from precise, but it's 
estimated that users spend about $100 billion annually, sustaining 
and enriching large criminal organisations inside and outside the country.

One of the more pernicious aspects of Mr Nixon's crusade was the 
pressure he and other officials brought to bear on foreign 
governments to follow US thinking on prohibitions. Unsurprisingly, 
Australia obliged, if without quite the same zealousness that has 
seen US jails fit to bursting with people convicted of relatively 
trivial offences. Nearly 45 years on, belief in the effectiveness of 
heavily policed drug prohibition regimes has all but collapsed, even 
in parts of the US.

Evidence-based policies emphasising harm minimisation, drug 
treatment, and the decriminalisation of small amounts of cannabis for 
personal use are recognised almost universally as the approaches most 
likely to minimise the harmful, addictive effects of illicit drugs. 
But in certain government and law enforcement circles (including in 
Australia, disappointingly) attitudes to drug law reform remain hostile.

The hostility of the NSW government towards the concept of 
drug-checking laboratories at music festivals is but the latest 
manifestation of this recalcitrance. Pill-testing stations have 
become an almost routine feature of European music festivals, 
allowing patrons to test (anonymously) the purity of ecstasy tablets. 
Ecstasy, or MDMA, is the drug of choice for party and concert-goers 
because it heightens perceptions of colour and sound, among other 
things. One of the drug's side effects, however, is extremely high 
body temperatures that can lead to under or overhydration and, in 
some cases, death. A National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre report 
in 2010 estimated that ecstasy was involved in nearly 100 deaths in 
Australia between 2000 and 2008, about a dozen each year.

Many of these deaths have been at music festivals - seven in the past 
12 months - and concerts now feature big police contingents, complete 
with drug sniffer dogs.

The dogs have been successful in sniffing out potential ecstasy 
users, but the overall effectiveness of a strong police presence 
remains a matter of dispute. It's claimed concert-goers can and do 
ingest their pills before they get to the festival venue, and the 
dogs are an unwelcome intrusion at otherwise peaceful and well-behaved events.

Allowing festival-goers to test their pills for potency or to 
ascertain whether they have been contaminated with toxic chemicals 
seems a sensible idea. Most ecstasy tablets are manufactured in China 
and sold on the black market, meaning buyers have no idea about their 
potency or purity. Logically, anyone in possession of pills shown to 
be adulterated or of super potency would be unlikely to consume them.

Among those pushing for the introduction of drug-testing laboratories 
is Canberra physician David Caldicott, who argues the labs would save 
lives and, by educating young people about the prevalence of tainted 
drugs, perhaps reduce consumption. And Dr Caldicott has also vowed 
that he'd be prepared to help run a trial. This week, however, NSW 
Premier Mike Baird reaffirmed his government's opposition to pill 
testing, rejecting the safety objectives and suggesting that 
festival-goers abstain from drug-taking to ensure their safety.

Mr Baird's failure to endorse pill testing is depressing, the more so 
since he generally espouses progressive views on other social issues. 
And the disconnect raises the strong suspicion he's been swayed by 
NSW Police. They are the last authority on crime strategy, but for 
the NSW force to insist on the primacy of prohibition is self-serving 
and dishonest  if they were doing their jobs properly, ecstasy would 
be unavailable on the streets.

The Premier has done festivalgoers and himself a disservice by 
cleaving to drug policies that were never successful.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom