Over the festive season, there is usually a lull in medical news and information. Because of yet another death at a music festival recently, the discussion has reemerged about pill testing at these venues.
Firstly, let me make the point that it is my opinion that any intervention that saves lives is important and should be considered. Secondly, let me make the even more important point that 80% of drug-related deaths in our society are due to cigarette smoke and 17% to alcohol because both are legal and freely available. It is only 3% of drug-related deaths that are due to illegal drugs because they are harder to get and — the clue is in the title — it is against the law to use them.
Thirdly, society is becoming increasingly regulated in all regards and I am certainly not suggesting we should have a nanny state but human beings have shown clearly that they cannot regulate their own behaviour, thus the importance of all forms of law.
Fourthly, many people use so-called “recreational” drugs on a regular basis and avoid any significant medical issues as a consequence. But, I see this in the same way as using seat belts. Most of us could probably drive without a seat belt and come to no harm but if we are in an accident then the seat belt may save our life or prevent a serious injury. Thus, we all strap on our seat belts, firstly because it is law and secondly as a strong preventative measure to minimise harm. I believe we should all avoid illegal drugs for exactly the same reasons.
Now to the issue of pill testing. There are many people who believe this is an important intervention that should be freely available at dance festivals. There is, in fact, no clear evidence that this does minimise death risk but certainly may alert some people that the pills they have purchased from illegal vendors may have other substances contained in the pill which they were not expecting. What a shock that you cannot trust drug dealers!
Although I am not convinced that pill testing will minimise harm, if it does save one life, it is probably worth the effort. But, I believe we need to look at the much bigger issue here which is the clear concern that these (typically) young people need to use mind altering substances to enjoy a dance festival. Let us not just blame dance festivals. Many young people now are using substances such as cocaine, ecstasy and the even more concerning heroin and crystal meth. Equally, people continue to smoke cigarettes and to use excessive amounts of alcohol.
As a species, we are a very disappointing lot, wherein we cannot enjoy the more natural ways of living without introducing mind altering substances into our body purely to have a good time. It is also a bizarre notion to think that it is necessary to have a mobile intensive care unit at a dance festival with the knowledge that a number of the attendees will have issues with the taking of illegal substances. Unfortunately, I suspect that pill testing will lull many individuals into a false sense of security and a false belief that taking tested illegal substances will not cause any harm. Unfortunately, there are a number of individuals who do not know they have an underlying cardiac condition or some other serious medical disorder and when exposed to a severe stress such as standard cocaine or ecstasy or any other illegal substance may have a serious medical consequence.
On a more chronic basis, we need much more information as to the recurrent use of these substances. As we clearly know with long-term use of cigarettes and alcohol abuse, the medical consequences are disastrous and I have no doubt it will be exactly the same for the vast majority, if not all illegal drugs.