We Need To Talk Seriously About The Drug Thing

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Usually when a magazine like ours touches on the topic of drugs…

…it’s rolled into a listicle about the usual ‘doof suspects’ (“shout out to the ‘acid munters’ trippin’ balls at the back of the crowd!”), a news article about psychedelic drug research, or a fun anecdote about a dance floor getting very messy on the final night of a festival (“shit really started getting crazy once the ket scooter rolled around…”). 

It’s probably time to get a little more serious, though: illicit drugs are common at festivals, and there is no denying their ability to dramatically enhance the experience, but get caught by the cops with just a handful of MDMA pills, and you’re facing some hefty criminal charges, even if you’re just planning on selling a handful to some mates. And, much as we like to pretend they’re safe, the reality is they do carry significant risks when consumed.

Although Bohemian Beatfreaks was a raging success in the end, when it faced an eleventh-hour challenge from the NSW Police Force that compelled its move over the border to Warwick (presumably its new permanent home), it was fairly obvious that a key motivation for that pressure was the potential issue of illegal drugs.

It’s clear that – although doofs are, thankfully, a radical departure from your massive, mainstream electronic festival – politicians and police simply did not want to run any risk of a repeat of the two deaths that occurred at Sydney’s Defqon. 1 in September this year.

23-year-old Joseph Pham died of a suspected overdose at this year’s Defqon.

Indeed, the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s very public response to that tragedy was to vow to do everything in her powers to shut down the festival. So, it seems that Boho was just stuck in the wrong state, at the wrong time.

But, is this ‘zero tolerance’ approach really going to solve the issue of illegal drugs, and the dangers they can pose to those that take them?

Of course not.

What is most acutely frustrating about Ms Berejiklian’s stance, though, is how it lays bare the complete lack of progress that we as a country have made on this issue.

When 15-year-old Sydney schoolgirl Anna Wood died after taking ecstasy, the ensuing moral panic put the topic of MDMA/ecstasy and rave culture, quite literally on the front page of the newspaper, and into the minds of every concerned parent across the country.

15-year-old Anna Wood and her parents (now)

The response from authorities was to crack down on events, issue dire warnings about the consequences of taking drugs, and generally adopt a ‘hard line’ approach.

That was twenty-three years ago.

Just for emphasis: Twenty. Three.

Two. Three.

23.

I was just commencing puberty at that point.

So here we are, more than two decades on, people are still dying, and still our politicians are responding in the exact same way, somehow expecting different results.

That’s not the definition of insanity some people think it is, but it is incredibly – or, indeed, criminally – bad policy.


The ‘war’ on drugs

It’s fair to say that, when it comes to this topic, we all can agree on one thing: we want to minimise the physical and social harms of drug use.

There are, however, many ways of going about this. Broadly speaking we can divide them into two categories: prohibition, and harm minimisation.

Prohibition essentially tries to address the issue via consumption minimisation, usually through choking supply, and criminalising any aspect of the drug trade.

The one, tiny problem with this approach?

Well… put simply, it doesn’t work. That has been demonstrated time and time again.

Why? Two reasons: human nature, and the basic laws of economics. People will still want to consume drugs (especially addictive varieties), and that creates a demand that only gets more financially lucrative the more you try to close down the supply chain. Dealers will then risk their freedom, or even their lives, just to service it.

To paraphrase the author Johann Hari, if we can’t keep drugs out of our maximum security prisons, what hope do we have of keeping them off our streets?

The United States is perhaps the best illustration of what happens when you go hard in the direction of prohibition.

The Nixon Administration launched the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ over 40 years ago, trillions of dollars have since been spent fighting it, with basically zero net effect on the use of illegal substances.

Even before a handful of jurisdictions began legalising its recreational use back in 2012, there were, famously, higher rates of cannabis consumption in that country than there was in The Netherlands, where you can freely walk into a coffee shop and pick up a high-powered, pre-rolled joint for around five Euros.

So, not only has this ‘war’ done little or nothing to curb drug use, but has also had some horrendous unintended consequences.

It has massively increased incarceration rates (there are, at present, over 2 million inmates in US Prisons), with many of those behind bars for drug possession or supply offences. That has devastated the social fabric, with African-American and hispanic communities hit the hardest.

It has also created immense opportunities for drug production and supply among America’s southern neighbours. Mexico and Columbia are two countries that have suffered particularly badly from from the power and influence of drug cartels supplying the US market.

If we’re really worried about the social harms of illegal drug use, then these costs (to mention just two of many) seem pretty huge.

So, we have to find a better way.


Is there a ‘better way’?

As I said at the start of this article, taking drugs is risky.

Tony Wood, father of the aforementioned Anna, who remains a staunch anti-drug campaigner says “You just don’t know what will happen when you take drugs”. And, the brutal truth is, he’s right.

When you buy a cap of MDMA off some carpark rando, you really don’t know what’s in it, unless you’re lucky enough to have access to pill testing technology (which, astoundingly, our politicians also oppose).

drug testing kit australia
A standard MDMA testing kit, sold by EZ Test.

Therein lies the problem; that drug is more dangerous because of its illegality. You don’t know what’s in it, because it was probably made by some dude playing out his Walter White fantasies in a tin shed out back of Beaudesert.

But, imagine if you knew exactly what was in that pill?

Imagine if you not only knew that every drug you consumed (while a drum and bass duo frapped the everloving shit out of your eardrums) was produced in a carefully-monitored lab or factory alongside your paracetamol, but also that every single one you bought was identical strength?

Just as most responsible adults know how many standard alcoholic drinks will get them tipsy, and how many in an hour will make it unsafe for them to drive, imagine if you were able to know exactly how much MDMA was enough to get you through a seven hour sesh on on the D-floor bonding with strangers (because HOW AMAZING IS THIS MUSIC RIGHT NOW?!?!) and how much was too much?

Want to minimise the physical and social harms of drug use?

Then legalise them. Not only will that massively cut down on the physical risks that occur when people take dodgy pills, or snort suspect powders at festivals, but it will instantly dry up the black market that has made some brutally-violent underworld figures very rich and powerful for many decades. It will also bring its use out of the shadows, toilet cubicles and back alleys and into the light, where we can better look after users.

Tax them. That might just help fill the latest budget black hole (it sure worked with pot in Colorado).

It seems crazy, but if our existing approaches continue to fail spectacularly, why not try something new?

At the very least, if any politician wants to start being taken seriously on the topic, they should think about evidence and expertise, not panic and posturing. Otherwise we’ll be here again in another 23 years, having the same conversation. Who knows how many more lives will have been lost in the meantime.

I went through puberty a long time ago. Now it’s well past time for our politicians to start thinking and acting like grown ups as well.


This article was written by Stephen Harrington, who, when he’s not putting together another progressive house mix, or trying to understand how to make Ableton Live do what he wants, is a writer and academic based in Brisbane.

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