Deaths at music festivals have become the new bushfires – the senseless, heartbreaking tragedies that mar the otherwise perfect Australian summer. In 2018, six people died between the ages of 18 and 23. By the time you read this, the death toll may very well be creeping upward.
And if this coming year is anything like 2019, then this spate of ecstasy-related deaths will trigger another debate over what is to be done. And as usual, the debate will mostly hinge on whether or not to allow ‘pill testing’ – chemically analysing ecstasy tablets to see whether they have been laced with potentially fatal ingredients.
Now, pill testing is an idea that I’ve never quite been sold on. To be honest, it seems like a half-pregnant solution. But what we cannot deny is that the so-called war on drugs has been a spectacular public policy failure. State and federal governments have been bashing away at it for decades and have absolutely nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, drug-related crime has soared, prisons have filled up and otherwise law-abiding citizens have been left with criminal records. The only winners have been criminal gangs that have cornered the unregulated market, outsmarted police and raked in enormous (and untaxed) profits.
And Australia is not alone. Tough-on-drugs approaches have failed in almost every county that has tried them. The only exceptions are places like Saudi Arabia and Singapore, where they hang you for going within cooee of them. And even the most hard-headed anti-drug crusader would agree that that kind of ‘solution’ wouldn’t work in a liberal democracy like Australia. Difficult as it is to believe sometimes, this is not a police state, and I don’t particularly want to live in one.
What we have to ask ourselves now is why so many young people in particular are turning to drugs like ecstasy. And the truth is that we as a country pushed kids onto drugs, through our mindless and idiotic overregulation of alcohol. We did it by jacking up liquor license fees and whacking taxes on utterly harmless products like so-called ‘alcopops’. We did it by banning parents from buying teenagers a glass of wine at a restaurant or serving light drinks at eighteenth birthday parties. We did it with lockout laws. We did it with draconian RSA laws. We did it with blanket bans on having a few quiet beers at the beach or the park or, God forbid, at a neighbourhood street party.
Is it any wonder that young people looking for a good time threw up their hands in frustration and decided to try something else? When a hit of ecstasy costs less than a six-pack of beer, it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize-winning economist to tell you what cash-strapped teenagers will go for.
The good news is that there are other public policy options here. Look at Portugal, where the decriminalisation of drugs has led to lower rates of incarceration and higher rates of rehabilitation. Or the Netherlands, where its famously liberal regime has created some of the lowest rates of drug-related crime anywhere in the world. Or many states in the US, where the legalisation of cannabis has seen sharp declines in the use of much more harmful – and often fatal – opioids.
I’m not necessarily saying that these solutions are right for Australia. But what I am saying is that we at least need to have a conversation, because what we are doing right now is not working. And none of us want to live in a country where criminal gangs are laughing as decent people bury their children.