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Do drug users deserve to die?



Do drug users deserve to die? Maybe I'm just a bleeding-heart lefty, but I hope that most people would answer this question with a 'no'. Unfortunately, if you read the comment section of any news story on the recent spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals you will find a mixed response.

A young pill testing supporter holds a sign during a rally outside Sydney Town Hall on 19 January 2019 in Sydney, calling on the government to support pill testing at music festivals and raves. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)While I am generally left wanting by any comment section on the internet, the callousness of some regarding this tragic loss of life astounded me. Comments suggesting that drug users 'have it coming' are rife. 'They knew the risks' is the common cry. Within these messages is the tacit belief that anyone who takes drugs immediately forfeits their humanity and the associated privilege of life.

The decision to take drugs is a cost-benefit analysis, and it is often made by sensible, intelligent, people. Yet, in our public discourse politicians only ever want to demonise drug users.

Before we can demonise all currently illicit drugs and their users, we must first deeply examine our attitudes to alcohol. Alcohol abuse causes more harm than heroin and crack cocaine (when taking into account its effects on both users and others), and costs the Australian economy roughly $15 billion dollars a year. Yet, even our conservative Christian PM has no qualms about sculling a cup of beer to help solidify his credibility as an average bloke. If the illegality of a drug were proportional to its harm, alcohol would be gone from shelves while mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA would be available from the corner store.

But why do people take illegal drugs? It's the question politicians from our major parties seem reticent to talk about. They are reluctant to engage with this question, of course, because it would require them to admit that drugs can be fun.

Drugs can induce euphoria, relax, calm, invigorate and stimulate. They can cause hallucinations and trigger spiritual experiences. Drugs can enhance or dull our senses and free us from inhibitions. People take drugs because they find the experience of taking drugs pleasurable — just ask anyone who drinks booze! If we're going to discuss drug regulation we must openly acknowledge this simple fact, because it's the reason that prohibition doesn't work.

There are, of course, several very good reasons not to take drugs. These include but are not limited to: addiction and its flow-on effects, the triggering of mental illness, brain damage, adverse reactions from unmonitored use, and a lack of regulation in production resulting in inherently dangerous products. On this last point, I would warn people off drug use for the simple fact that users currently have no way of telling what is in the product that they are buying.


"For most of our legislators, the goal has shifted away from harm minimisation towards prohibition for its own sake."


The government doesn't really have any interest in outlawing things simply because they are fun (though the NSW government's approach to music festivals might hint otherwise). The purpose of drug laws is, in theory, to mitigate the damage done by these potentially dangerous substances.

The reality is, however, that our politicians' goal is not to stop people from getting hurt; current laws clearly aren't based on the government's self-proclaimed principle of harm reduction. Instead, our pollies hope to scare people away from taking drugs through punitive laws.

We must face the fact that prohibition simply doesn't work. As has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, simply telling people 'don't do the thing you find pleasurable' is an ineffective strategy. This is where our politicians have failed us; they are too caught up in their own virtue signalling around the morality of drugs to actually deal with the fact that people are dying. It's frustrating, because we have some good evidence about what does reduce the harm done by drugs.

Firstly, we must talk about the flavour du jour: pill testing at music festivals. There is some pretty compelling evidence that pill testing will reduce drug related death and injury. Drug checking may even alter the black market for those who don't participate in testing by providing an incentive for drug dealers (who are not usually known for their ethical behaviour) to produce safer products. Even the AMA has called for further trials of pill-testing, so that its efficacy can be monitored.

Pill-testing is, however, only scratching the surface of this issue. Our nation must also start to have some serious discussions about the legality of drugs. In the past year, the Greens have officially made marijuana legalisation part of their platform. This is not a radical notion; places like Canada and many states in America have legalised marijuana and subsequently reaped financial and social benefits.

The decriminalisation (but not legalisation) of 'hard' drugs is another strategy that must be discussed. Though it seems counterintuitive, the benefits of decriminalisation are clear in that it lessens the burden on the legal system while allowing governments to redirect funds towards programs that help drug users both break free from dependency and reintegrate into society. Portugal is often held as the gold standard of how decriminalisation can lead to harm reduction; it experiences a lower level of problematic drug use and drug-related deaths than it did before decriminalisation.

So are we okay with drug users dying? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes. For most of our legislators, the goal has shifted away from harm minimisation towards prohibition for its own sake. If politicians stopped posturing, they might find that they have some clear, practical solutions ready to go, if only they had the courage to try.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at www.mrhutton.com.

Main image: A young pill testing supporter holds a sign during a rally outside Sydney Town Hall on 19 January 2019 in Sydney, calling on the government to support pill testing at music festivals and raves. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, pill testing, marijuana



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim for a good article. Having known a drug addict who died of a drug overdose, I don't want to see drug addicts die. I support pill testing at music festivals because I think it will save some lives. And I think we need a national debate about decriminalisation of drugs. This debate must include evidence-based practice. Sadly, so many of our politicians are too keen to play politics in relation to such issues. Until we elect many more ethical politicians, I really can't see such a debate occurring.

Grant Allen | 18 March 2019  

Do drug users deserve to die? No. Of course not. All recreational drug use is a choice. When young people experiment with alcohol or drugs it may be that they do so out of peer pressure or excitement at pushing boundaries. Unfortunately, there may be no second chance to reconsider their decision. Addiction breaks people and relationships. The solution? Harm minimisation is a better strategy than prohibition. However, we need only look at how a legal drug like alcohol is negatively impacting society to see that helping our young people (and not so young people) to recognise their strength to say "no" is a worthwhile goal.

Pam | 18 March 2019  

It is sad that they can't view it as a public health concern. People need to be kept safe, even when, and especially when, they are engaging in risky behaviour. The state has a responsibility to behave responsibly, even if others don't. This is one of the marks of a civil society. Alcohol and prescription drugs (benzos, barbituates, opioids) cause the most damage to individuals and communities on large scales, yet are legal, controlled and taxed. MDMA is the main choice of drug for people at dance festivals, exactly because it feels good (even ecstatic!) when you consume them (yes, usually more than one). What I do not hear as associated with MDMA consumption is violent crimes, physical and sexual assualts, violence causing death or murder. So, if contained within a public space, with a sense of responsibility for each other's safety, why on earth would you let people risk their lives because by not allowing pill testing? Perhaps it is generational. and maybe because Australia is at the end of the world, we might not cotton for 10 years to come. But how many good young people will die trying to have a good time? Not as many as drunk drivers will kill in the next 12 months. The numbers are in our face but society seems so desensitised by alcohol, we may as well be hooked on it. One day when someone who is important has a son or daughter who has a scare and maybe then, when it becomes real. maybe then a case for change will be made. So, yes, to the point of your article, the stigma of being a drug user, recreationally or re-creationally, outweighs the value of the human person's right to get high in safe ways.

Damien | 18 March 2019  

It is not a point of agreeing or disagreeing. Responsibility is what is being overlooked. The blame game overrides personal responsibility. Society is surrendering the civil liberties of our free country. Governments are only doing what is in their best interest turning our country into a police state mentality. All persons over the age of 12 are legally responsible for any criminal activity they are involved in. If a person takes, gets sick, ends up in hospital they are responsible so why is that person not charged with a criminal offence? The supplier is guilty but so is the consumer. The state has just given police powers to enter some persons dwelling without a warrant on suspicion. These are the liberties and freedoms we are giving away. Wake up Australia.

edward m | 19 March 2019  

I don't think that I have ever met anyone who thinks that drug users deserve to die. That is something of a straw man. There is a difference between that position and the practical recognition that a drug user has at some point in almost every case made a free decision to engage in behaviour known to them to be dangerous and for no reasons other than hedonism. That does create a moral distinction between the consequences of their own actions, however far down the track, and a tragedy entirely not of their own making. People can reasonably differ about how to best deal with problems of drug use. I see the principle benefit of decriminalization not in what it does for drug users but in what it does in removing others from large nets of criminality surrounding the illegal trade.

Bob | 19 March 2019  

There is an obvious bias here that needs to be called out. 1. Authors of other comments here appear to hold the position that drugs, and drug use, is bad. This is in the perjorative language about users and addicts as "others" to be pitied. 2. None of them have any practical experience upon which to base these views. By this I mean none have engaged in the drug taking they refer to. I challenge you to find an MDMA addict. It is just not possible or even practical. MDMA is a chemical that when mixed with the chemicals already in your system, produces a state that is described as "ecstacy" - hence the street name. However, the ecstatic state is nothing new and is not something of recent discovery, in fact the great mystics are well versed in the ecstatic state. Thoughought history this has been achieved in a few different ways: sexually - the union of two souls engaging in sexual activity that produces an ecstatic feeling; prayerfully - meditation that leads to contemplation and union with the divine; and now, synthetically - dropping an e. Maslow talks about Peak Experiences and David Steindl-Rast talks about everyone have the potential mystic in them. Although a different drug, The Good Friday Experiment established the link between psilocybin and religious expeience. I note that MDMA and psilocybin are different substances, but that non-drug users will lump them all in the same "bad" boat together. So to your point there Bob that this is all about hedonism, perhaps you could broaden your viewpoint by considering that using MDMA "re-creationally" creates the experience of oneness that opens you up to something very beautiful. Try and think, soul seeking not thrill seeking.

Damien | 19 March 2019  
Show Responses

I realize my comment/reply is years late, and as I am a US citizen, members in this forum may have no interest in my views/experiences. But I do believe I'm going to soldier on for at least one simple reason - someone may stumble upon this article as I did and may appreciate my comment as I did Damien's.

It's lovely that no one here actually WANTS addicts or users (and there is a significant difference, as there is a difference between dependence and addiction) to die.
But the fact is that they are indeed dying and it is indeed preventable, whether they are breaking the law or not, making a conscious (and intelligent) choice or not, and their lives are in the balance while people quibble over subjective morality.
What is the assumption of immorality in comparison to that of the worth of a human life?
It means ZERO.

Selena Wilson | 15 May 2022  

I was brought up in a home where my father would come home drunk every Friday and Saturday evenings, and start slapping my mothers's face! The memories never go. I'm 75, live alone, and still tend to dwell on them. I never married or took up with any permanent relationship. That kind of home life for a child is life damaging.

Lynne Redknap | 23 March 2019  

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