If drugs are illegal how can pill testing be justified? Does it encourage or enable illegal behaviour? Alison Ritter explores whether harm minimisation leads to drug legalisation.
Another drug-related death, this time at the Stereosonic music festival has renewed calls for better forms of harm reducing interventions. Pill testing – which has been mooted for use in Australia – is one such intervention that could be implemented in Australia. It is corroborated by experiences and evidence from a number of European countries, where it is known as “drug checking”.
Drug checking involves the prospective user providing a sample of their substance to be examined by a professional who can provide feedback on how safe it might be to consume. The feedback can be immediate with the use of onsite drug checking facilities or it can be obtained in advance via postal services, for example.
In either case it raises the question of whether we should allow people to have their illegal substances checked for later use without prosecution.
There are a number of different ways of thinking about this. First, can we have pragmatic, humane responses in an environment where drug use remains illegal? Yes. We live with these kinds of contradictions in public life all the time.
For example, injecting illicit drugs is a prosecutable offence but we don’t think people deserve to contract blood borne viruses so we provide a safer means for them to inject drugs. This does not mean that the law is being flouted – it means that we have a practical, inexpensive way to prevent harm.
This does not mean that the law is being flouted – it means that we have a practical, inexpensive way to prevent harm.
Equally, drug checking does not mean drug use will become legal. It means providing people who have chosen to use drugs with the opportunity to be better informed about the drugs they may consume and to be provided with information that could prevent harm.
Not all harms will be prevented – drug use is a risky activity. Yet as a society we agree that reducing harms is important. There are many activities that are risky and illegal, such as base jumping and there are many activities that are risky and legal –excessive alcohol consumption, motorsports or horse riding, which is said to cause more harm in the UK than ecstasy
In a liberal democracy, the law exists to protect the community from those who seek to harm or hurt others, or harm or hurt themselves. Drug checking is entirely consistent with those goals. It is only if one views the law as protecting or advancing morality a contradiction arises. If drug use is immoral and therefore “harmful” to a person’s character or soul then perhaps drug checking would be a problem, but that isn’t the way most of us think.
The view that drug use is immoral is not widely held. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, most people think those found in possession of illegal drugs should be referred to a treatment or education program rather than imprisoned. Incidentally, amongst young people (the target audience for drug checking), 82% support the availability of drug checking services.
Australia has had a fairly good track record of pragmatic, humane responses to drug use without legalisation. One example is cannabis caution notices wherein a person caught with a small quantity of cannabis is given a fine. This does not condone drug use. It does not legalise drug use. But it is a pragmatic response that avoids one of the more serious harms from cannabis use – obtaining a criminal record.
In a liberal democracy, the law exists to protect the community from those who seek to harm or hurt others, or harm or hurt themselves. Drug checking is entirely consistent with those goals.
Medicinal cannabis is another example of a pragmatic response under development at present across a number of Australian states. Yes, cannabis use is illegal, but there are people who are seeking to use cannabis as a medicine for specific conditions for which there is an emerging evidence-base. The availability of medicinal cannabis does not inevitably lead to legalisation of cannabis use. In NSW a ‘compassionate access’ scheme protects those registered by a letter from a doctor from prosecution.
The police are a critical element in all this. We have a number of drug-related policies where the police exercise appropriate discretion under protocols and guidelines agreed to between police and health. One example is police presence at drug overdoses. They attend only when safety is at issue, not to arrest anyone.
We live with contradictions every day. Harm reduction services – including drug checking – can sit hand-in-hand with the view that drugs should be illegal. Drug checking alone does not lead inevitably to legalisation.
Professor Alison Ritter is the Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonRitter1. Image: MixTribe | Flickr.