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Here we are again. Two young people dead. Others critically ill. And politicians not merely vowing they won’t act, but seeming to think that’s a virtue.

Whether pill-testing would have prevented the deaths and illnesses at Defqon.1 at Penrith in Sydney’s west over the weekend can’t ever be known, but we certainly know it would have significantly increased the chances of people not taking toxic substances, because they would have binned dangerous or potentially dangerous pills after testing. We know that because that’s what happens as a result of pill-testing. That’s what happened at Groovin’ the Moo in Canberra earlier this year.

Yet major party politicians outside the ACT continue to reject pill testing. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said she would instead close down Defqon.1, a simply nonsensical statement. How will she do that? What if the organisers rename the same festival? Will she ban all derivations of Defqon? Is she going to ban all dance music festivals? Ban, ban, ban.

The reflexive opposition to pill-testing in favour of constant reiterations of the failed prohibitionist approach isn’t just profoundly stupid. It’s lethal. Every life lost should weigh on the consciences of major party politicians and the senior police who support them in rejecting pill-testing. And what drives it? Not merely, as Dr Alex Wodak has argued, the obsession with a law enforcement and supply control approach to drug policy, but, seemingly, an indifference to young peoples’ lives, a belief that being seen to be “tough on drugs” plays better with the electorate, or at least with tabloid newspapers and shockjocks, than doing whatever it takes to prevent young people dying. 

The willingness of policymakers to let young people die rather than admit a reflexive prohibitionist approach isn’t working should be a major scandal, but in a society that readily engages in a constant war on its young people via climate policy, housing policy and education policy, it’s more like business as usual. And the death toll from this failure, and the grief of families and friends over lives cut so short, will continue to grow.

Peter Fray

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