EDITORIAL: Playing Russian roulette with party drugs

MORE than a dozen young Hunter people have found themselves in hospital this week after taking “blue superman” pills they believed were the party drug ecstasy, or MDMA.

Instead, the triangular tablets have been analysed and found to contain alprazolam, the key ingredient in a potent short-acting benzodiazepine marketed as Xanax, which can be extremely dangerous when mixed with alcohol, as was apparently the case here.

There will be some readers who will say that those hospitalised brought it on themselves: that they deserved what they got for taking illegal drugs that they had no way of knowing the contents of.

But the reality is that many Australians use – or have used – illicit drugs, despite decades of warnings and a legal system that still relies heavily on prohibition as the main weapon in a long-running “war on drugs”.

Despite prohibition, Australian law-makers have seen fit in some circumstances to bend to the reality of the situation by adopting policies based on “harm management” strategies.

Needle exchanges are a case in point. Countless syringes are distributed without charge every year by needle exchanges – including those in the Hunter – on the basis that clean needles demonstrably reduce the spread of dangerous blood-borne diseases including HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C.

In a similar light, there have been calls for some years now for pill testing to be available at music festivals, where a potentially sizeable slice of the audience will have run the risk of taking party drugs. Pill testing kits are available for purchase online but the NSW government has previously opposed their official use at festivals. The ACT government had approved pill testing at next month’s Spilt Milk festival in Canberra, but the organisers announced this week that the testing organisation had not been able to get the required documents and insurance, meaning the trial would not go ahead.

The ACT has a reputation for progressive government and it would not surprise to see another Canberra festival proceed with testing before long. It is difficult to imagine the Coalition changing its mind in NSW – despite its support for medicinal cannabis – meaning that those determined to break the law by taking party drugs are being left to play Russian roulette.

It’s a far from ideal situation.

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