Whitlam Institute

What Matters 2019 Shortlist

What Matters 2019 Shortlist

A hard pill to swallow?

A hard pill to swallow?

Natasha Huang

Year 12, Abbotsleigh

It's dark. Two outstretched hands materialise before you and unfurl to reveal a red pill in one hand, and a blue in the other. You can taste the bitterness of apprehension and feel the fear that trickles down your back before a deep voice rumbles from the gloom. “You take the blue pill. The story ends and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Seem familiar? What I just described was the famous pill scene from The Matrix and it was Morpheus who offered our hero Neo the pills which -spoiler alert-he took. But what was in them? What if they were poisonous? What if Neo died and that was the short and realistic ending of the whole Matrix trilogy?

Luckily for him, it was just a movie. But in our non-Matrix reality, real people are dying from the unknown drugs they are taking and there are no sci-fi heroes who can save them. 

Between September and January, 5 people have died at music festivals in NSW after suspected drug overdoses. A formula seems to have emerged: a young person dies, calls for pill testing are ignited, calls are then rejected, and we wait until another young person gambles away their life. But they are not just nameless people. They are Alex Ross-King, Diana Nguyen and Callum Brosnan, 3 of the 5 deaths that could have been prevented. For years, Australian drug policy experts have known that existing drug policies are failing. Calls for total abstinence, harsher penalties and criminalisation of drug users have had no impact on the usage of drugs or their harms on society. Instead, it looks like young people quickly taking all their pills at once if they see police approaching, or being too afraid to seek medical help when they are unwell. The current inflexible attitudes of policy makers needs to change, requiring modern harm minimisation strategies like pill testing.

Pill testing is a service that analyses the contents of drugs to detect unknown and potentially dangerous substances. By exposing the unknown purity of drugs which is what often leads to accidental overdoses, users can make informed decisions about what substances they take. In addition, pill testing facilitates vital conversations about drug usage that otherwise would never have occurred. Yet, Australia's first pill testing trial only happened in April 2018 at Canberra's 'Groovin the Moo' music festival. Screening out 2 lethal substances, with one linked to mass overdoses and fatalities in the past, these drugs were disposed of and 2 potential lives were saved that day.

Decades of telling young people to not take drugs 'just because' has not worked and won't suddenly start working now. Australia already spends more than $1 billion on the war of drugs, a war we are losing because of the refusal to consider pill testing as a viable solution. As a young person with friends who all love music festivals, it is an issue I deeply resonate with. Australia has the highest rate of ecstasy consumption in the world despite our 'zero tolerance' approach to illicit drug use, meaning we need to follow Europe's policies that have been working for almost 2 decades.

With such positive responses and concrete outcomes, it is time Australian politics caught on with its people. It is time Australia adopted modern solutions to this issue. And while it may be a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it is time it mattered enough to everyone, for change to be enacted.