Pill testing at festivals: society’s way of blame-shifting

January 7, 2016

In the wake of two more party-goers succumbing to drug overdose at the much maligned Stereosonic Music Festival, we’ve been inundated with calls for pill testing at music festivals. Doctors, youth workers, pharmacists, and of course, the revellers themselves, have united in calls to implement a testing regime to ensure a safer experience for the thousands of party seekers unsatisfied with just good sounds and alcohol.

Emergency medicine physician David Caldicott has long campaigned for pill testing to be allowed in Australia. His premise being that testing could, could, discover contaminants in pills and new substances, thus minimising risk. He also contends that such methods allow for an open discussion on drug consumption, rather than the evasive culture that currently dominates at music festivals.

While people dying from overdose is indeed tragic, and individuals making calls for change are undoubtedly well intentioned, we should also be concerned with society’s increasing tendency to shoulder responsibility for what are, in essence, the decisions of individuals. On a wide spectrum, from calls to ban advertising for gambling and junk food, to campaigns for the legalisation of illicit drugs, there is a growing trend of society cushioning our unnecessary indulgences. In our cosy democratic world, we want the autonomy to make indulgent decisions, yet we want collective shouldering of the consequences.

It is fair to claim that young people across generations engage in risk taking behaviour. From smoking, drinking, and drugs, there is the undeniable fact that a certain percentage of people lack the wisdom to make the right decision. The question is: where do we draw the line on what we are prepared to tolerate? We are not doing future generations any favours by always sending the message that there can always be someone else to blame.

We are told that recreational drug use is an inevitable reality at music festivals and that it is time to adopt a pragmatic rather than punitive approach to minimise harm. It works in Europe, we’re told. Less people die and people feel safer. This may be true, but allowing pill testing means the decision making process to take the drug no longer belongs to the sole individual. It now involves others and inevitably, the consequences are owned by them too. Once again, the message is that society will shoulder the price of your indulgences.

The blame becomes externalised. In a strange state of affairs, the responsible party is not the drug taker, but everyone else. The police are too tough, the organisers did not provide the appropriate provisions, and the law is obsolete. The individual’s decision becomes one component in web of collective responsibility.

If we do adopt pill testing, it is not inconceivable that organising bodies will face law suits if individuals overdose despite the test. It usually takes three days to thoroughly assess a substance anyway, and the impact could have the reverse consequence of encouraging more people to experiment since the risk is seemingly less. Is it too harsh to say that an individual should bear the consequences their autonomous decisions?

We should hardly be surprised. This campaign is the latest instalment in society’s long running drama of pandering. Culturally, blame shifting is taking hold. In our schools, students increasingly blame others for performances that may not have lived up to their expectations. Teachers, the school, parents, they are all held responsible. The individual is shielded. The pattern continues into adulthood, catering for every indulgence.

Gambling, consumption, unemployment, financial trouble, all can now be laid at the feet of someone else. Gambling? Blame Sportsbet ads and pokes venues. Consumption? Blame McDonalds and junk food advertising. Unemployment? Blame the government. Financial trouble? Damn those heartless banks that lent the money and called in what is owed. A shift in narrative is not only desirable, it’s essential. Individual responsibility is a prerequisite to a healthy, vibrant society.

The reality check? If you binge on fast food for the better part of your life then you and you alone are responsible for the monolith that stares back at you in the mirror. If you spend the majority of your income on pokies and Sportsbet then you and you alone are responsible for the empty kitchen table staring back at you. If you want to purchase an item, be it a house, a car, or maybe a holiday, make sure you arrange the means by which you can pay it back.

Likewise, if you take a pill and accept the risks you’ve been warned of your entire life, then you and you alone are responsible for the insidious consequences that ensue.

Every time we go down this road we further rubber stamp the idea that it is okay to make irresponsible decisions. Individuals make choices through life, and they live (or die) as a consequence of those choices. Want to take a drug at a music festival? Your choice, but the consequences are yours too.

Article Categories:
Current Affairs