Almost three years ago we published this interview with Dr Alex Wodak, one of the chief activists in the push to liberalise the government's approach to illegal drugs in Australia. At that time he was fighting to implement pill-testing stations at music festivals across NSW as part of a broader harm minimisation strategy that would see criminal sanctions for use and possession of drugs come down, as well as the legalisation and sale of recreational drugs like MDMA and marijuana.
This summer, a number of deaths caused by adulterated MDMA have pushed the issue of pill testing back into the spotlight. The current NSW Liberal government continues to stand adamantly opposed to the idea, but Dr Wodak believes it's the only way to prevent further harm coming to young people, who are seemingly determined to take the drug, regardless of the risks involved.
Dr. Alex Wodak recounted to us his first experience of Sydney’s Kings Cross in the 1980s, ground zero for the heroin and HIV epidemic that would ravage the inner city for almost two decades.“I’d been living in London and I figured out how to get to St Vincent’s hospital and a young woman came up to me wearing a dirty singlet with track marks up her arm.” After she accosted him and asked if he wanted a “good time”, Dr. Wodak, rather than running, decided that Sydney’s inner city, with its junkies, prostitutes and heroin needles, was exactly where he wanted to be.
During his time in the Cross, he pushed for a needle syringe exchange program as well as controversial safe injecting rooms. He’s passionate about drug law reform and advocates for a sensible, evidence-based policy approach that aims to reduce harm to drug users as well as lessen or eliminate criminal penalties for personal use.
Lately, he’s been in the news as he fights for pill testing stations to be introduced at music festivals, something that, so far, state governments are not willing to do.
What do you want to see changed in Australia's drug laws?
The threshold question is whether drugs are primarily considered a law enforcement issue or a health and social issue, and once you make that threshold switch everything else follows, and most important is that money follows that switch. It’s absolutely critical to law reform, that we stop putting pressure on the legal system to solve this problem which it can never solve.
Pill testing, safe injecting rooms, drug consumption rooms, this is all part of a strategy of "harm minimisation". Can you explain what this means?
Harm minimisation is a policy that all eight Australian governments adopted on 2 January 1985, in a meeting with the then prime minister Bob Hawke in Canberra. All eight governments agreed that it would become Australia’s national drug policy, but it wasn’t really defined at the time what it meant. In the 90s, when John Howard was prime minister, harm minimisation was defined as supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. Even though the Howard government adopted a tough on drugs policy, it was surprisingly supportive of harm minimisation behind the scenes. So no press releases, no ministerial statements or comments, but for the first time ever, Commonwealth money went into state and territory needle switch programs, for the first time serious Commonwealth money went to divert drug users from the criminal justice system to the drug treatment system. And for the first time ever hundreds of millions of dollars went into stopping HIV being spread among and from people who inject drugs in Asia.
Isn’t making drugs illegal the best form of harm minimisation?
It’s an attractive theory, but we’ve had half a century to test it, and it’s very clear that not only does prohibition not reduce their availability, it actually increases and expands the drug trade and makes it more dangerous. When we look at actual outcomes from this policy regarding things that mean a lot more to the rest of the community, like deaths, disease, crime, corruption, violence and even threats to national security, all of these have gotten much worse over the last half century.
What are the hurdles in setting up pill testing stations at music festivals?
We already have pill testing in Australia, and we shouldn’t forget this. What’s allowed at the moment without any controversy is poor quality pill testing without professional education. You can buy reagent kits without any difficulty which give very inaccurate results. They don’t tell you what you’ve bought, they don’t tell you the quantity of the doses, they don’t tell you if there are dangerous contaminants and there are no professionally trained and supervised personnel to explain all this to you. You just buy them and test them, and the government doesn’t try and change that. What the government prevents us from doing is having state-of-the-art testing which tells you what you’ve bought, what the quantity of substance is per pill and what contaminants are present. What we would like to do is have onsite and offsite pill testing where you can get your pills or powder tested. The machines already exist in more than a dozen countries around the world and have for twenty years and now increasing numbers of countries have started testing, where you can get one or more of those three questions answered: What have I bought? What’s the quantity per tablet? And are there any ingredients in that tablet that might kill me?
Former Deputy Premier, Troy Grant, stated that pill testing organisers could be charged with manslaughter or face massive fines. Are you still willing to go ahead if this is the case?
These comments are nonsense. There’s a lot of community support for pill testing, and amongst people who take pills, there is overwhelming support. And you can bet that although families would prefer their sons and daughters not take anything, they would want them only to take pills that have been tested. I think that once this starts operating in Australia, support will be massive. We’ll see – like with the needle syringe program – one state will agree, and within two years it will be done in every state and territory.
How far do you think we should go in the decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs?
We have to start and proceed incrementally. Almost always change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. I think regarding the legal environment, it makes sense to start off with reducing, and then if possible, eliminating criminal sanctions against the use and possession of drugs consistent with personal use.
Can you see drugs like MDMA being sold on the shelf at some point?
Yes, it would be exactly like cannabis. It would be taxed; it would be regulated and tested. And instead of having young people taking something with no idea of the contents, and then half a dozen healthy young people dying every summer in Australia, as predictable as sunburn, we would have regulated and tested ecstasy.
There is a lot of evidence that punitive drug policies encourage more dangerous drugs to ease out less dangerous drugs.
Would you advocate for harder drugs to be available?
There will be exclusions. We are never going to see, never have, and will not see 1kg bricks of 100 percent pure heroin, amphetamines or cocaine available at the supermarket check-out counter. No one wants to see that – I don’t want to see that. What we have to look for is compromise. Yes, you can have edible opium, but you can’t have a one kilogram brick of 100 percent pure cocaine, heroin, amphetamine. On the other hand, if you somehow get into serious problems with heroin and you need help, we’re happy to have a doctor prescribe heroin for you and have it dispensed to you in a clinic every day. And we have trials from at least half a dozen countries where those kinds of heroin prescription programs have been very effective. Not for everybody, but for people that are severely dependent and treatment-refractory – both of those conditions. Addicts with long-standing problems of an enormous magnitude – they’ve tried half a dozen different treatments, and nothing's worked for them. We have experience from Switzerland, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, England and Canada, that those trials really benefit users, their families and their communities.
Do you think decriminalisation or legalisation will encourage people to try drugs?
It’s an attractive theory that liberalising drug laws will increase drug consumption, but despite researchers in half a dozen continents looking for exactly that over thirty or forty years, there’s no evidence that it happens – and there’s a lot of evidence that it doesn’t happen. Drug policy surprisingly makes very little or no difference to what drugs people take, if anything, punitive approaches make it much worse and they certainly increase the hazardousness of available drugs. And this is one of the threads in the argument that always gets lost – there is a lot of evidence that punitive drug policies encourage more dangerous drugs to ease out less dangerous drugs.
In your opinion, what are the dangers of pure and tested MDMA?
One of the foremost experts on this is Professor David Nutt, who was chair of the ACMD, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which in Britain is a very high-level policy advisory body that advises the UK government on drugs. Professor Nutt was sacked in 2009 by the then Labour Government because he had said at a social gathering where he was speaking, that the risks of taking MDMA were less than the risks of horse riding. This wasn’t just picked out of the air. He had made some calculations based on how many horse riders had died in Britain, compared to how many people go horse riding, and he compared how many people die from MDMA, compared to how many people take MDMA, and worked out that the risks of MDMA were actually less than the those of horse riding. A recording of that was taken without his permission or knowledge and circulated, and the Brown Labour government shamefully sacked him. As far as we know David Nutt never rescinded that statement, and nobody from a scientific background has ever challenged it.
What are the main adulterants people should be looking out for?
You can’t look out for them because a contaminated pill looks the same as a regular pill. And this is why pill testing is so important. If you’re at a youth music event where pill testing is available in Spain, the Netherlands or Switzerland, they’ll have a series of television screens and pictures of a blue pill with a smiley face on it, an identification number and information on what adulterants the pill contains. If you have pills like that, throw it away and get rid of it. Pill testing helps a lot more people indirectly than it helps directly by changing the market. If you’re at a youth music event where pill testing is available, the sellers will know that they will get caught handing out dodgy pills, and people demanding their money back, so they will ensure that the pills they’re selling are not harmful.