There's a famous quote attributed to the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts".
Moynihan was emphasising the importance of developing public policies based on research and not on a selective use of statistics to justify a personal preference.
His words are particularly relevant as we consider the merits of progressive health policies that tackle illicit drug use, such as pill testing.
There’s no doubt that there is pressure on governments across the country to trial pill testing.
Pressure that has no doubt increased given the recent recommendation from the New South Wales Coroner for pill testing to be made available in NSW this coming festival season.
Interest in pill testing is the highest it’s ever been, and Tasmania is no exception.
As we navigate our way towards Tasmania’s festival season, and the Tasmanian Government continues its deliberations, it’s important to differentiate between what the research and evidence is telling us, and our own personal beliefs and attitudes.
Developing drug policy is complex.
There are those who hold the view that the ‘just-say-no’ approach is best, those who believe that drug-use is inevitable so the focus should be on reducing the harm, and then there are those wanting a combination of both approaches.
Regardless of the preference, their positions are likely to have been formed by similar experiences.
Whether it’s because they have a lived experience of drug use, they know someone who has or they spend their days working to assist those who do.
It may be that they don’t know anyone, but, through the stories they’ve heard, they know enough to be concerned.
In all these situations it’s completely understandable that people are cautious and that this discussion is evoking an emotional response.
We need to embrace the emotion, because it’s real.
But in doing so, we also need to open ourselves up to listening to, and at times being challenged by, the evidence of what actually happens, and the advice of experts, even if it doesn’t support how we personally feel or believe to be right.
Because of this, who we listen to is exceptionally important because there are a lot of well intentioned people eager to have their say, often citing statistics and ‘facts’ to back up their arguments.
Recent concerns that have been raised have been that pill testing drives the normalisation of drug-use and that it suggests that drugs, like ecstasy, are safe to take.
Concerns have also been raised about the quality of the pill testing technology, and that the information provided to patrons accessing pill testing services condones ongoing drug-use.
There are also concerns that pill testing or other harm-reduction strategies like safe injecting rooms, result in significant increases in drug related harm and deaths.
These are valid concerns but they are also ones that have been addressed and shown to be incorrect showing that despite concern, pill testing does reduce illicit drug use.
Yet these concerns continue to persist, sometimes by well-intentioned individuals.
It’s imperative that health policy be directed by the science and not by the personal preferences of individuals or the selective use of ‘facts’.
The position of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council is, and continues to be, that there is sufficient evidence supporting the merit of a pill testing trial in Tasmania.
Our position is guided by experts who have assessed the merits of trialling pill testing from their respective fields and also confirmed their support.
These include the doctors who deliver medical treatment everyday represented by the Rural Doctor’s Association of Australia, the Royal College of Physicians and the Australian College of General Practitioners.
It includes the paramedics and nurses who provide medical support to those impacted by drug-use represented by the College of Emergency Nursing Australasia and the Australian College for Emergency Medicine.
It includes the experts in drug-analysis technology, represented by the Forensic and Clinical Toxicology Association.
It also includes our colleagues through the Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council representing hundreds of community organisations delivering alcohol and other drug services to thousands of Australians.
There are more, and the evidence supporting pill testing has also been thoroughly reviewed by leading academics such as Professor Alison Ritter from the University of NSW and most recently by Magistrate Harriet Grahame, NSW Deputy Coroner, who has said:
“I am in no doubt whatsoever that there is sufficient evidence to support a drug-checking trial in this state [both on-site and fixed]. In my view the evidence is compelling”.
All Tasmanians are entitled to their own opinion about pill testing, whether it’s something that they would support, encourage others to access or not.
However, when forming this opinion, all we would ask is that you bear in mind the words of Daniel Moynihan.
Alison Lai is the chief executive officer of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council of Tasmania
Published in The Examiner, Tuesday November 19 2019 (subscribers only)
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