Drink Tank

Tough on drugs? Where’s the tough on alcohol?

Back in September, the ACT Government approved what would have been Australia’s first pill-testing trial, set for this weekend’s Spilt Milk Festival.

While it now won’t be going ahead, the ACT Government indicated last week that it would consider pill testing at another music festival, Groovin the Moo, in May next year.

In its original decision to support pill-testing at the Spilt Milk Festival, the ACT Government concluded that although they can’t stop teenagers taking drugs, they can reduce harm, evoke awareness and save young lives with pill testing machines.

At a glance, this thinking is a courageous and realistic move to battle drug culture not only in Canberra, but in Australia. However, this progressive step forward in illicit drug use has allowed the problems and misuse of alcohol – a legal drug – to fall short yet again.

As a young, fellow festival bopper, I’ve always observed sniffer dogs, long bag-inspection lines, police enforcement, and security hunting down hidden stashes of drugs. I’ve also noticed underage kids drinking, people sneaking alcohol in the most bizarre ways, people buying themselves five vodka Red Bulls at a time so as not have to line up again, people vomiting in the bushes or passing out, and ambulance officers attending intoxicated concert goers. It would be rare to see someone who isn’t drunk.

What I have noticed about every festival I’ve been to are the measures taken to reduce drug harm. Yet the harm I continually see has nothing much to do with illicit drugs – but rather the consumption of alcohol.

Australia’s love for drinking remains our biggest drug problem. 9.5 million Australians over 14 drink 97.1 per cent of all alcohol, and one in six drinkers consume more than six standards drinks on a typical drinking occasion.

The pill testing machines paint a picture that illegal drugs need to be monitored and controlled to keep young people safe – which is all well and good – but I’m left questioning what this means for the harm caused by alcohol. A free pass perhaps?

Australia’s drinking culture has always been very pervasive – with alcohol being deeply engrained in society. This not only reaffirms and cements alcohol as a social norm in society, but proves how hard it is to change the opinions and perception of day to day Australians about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption.

Sporting events, marriages, births, new jobs, deaths, and Australia’s music festival scenes are all associated with alcohol.

Alcohol harm is an issue that is right under our noses. It contributes to around 5,500 deaths and more than 150,000 hospitalisations each year. Of these alcohol-related deaths, 15 per cent are 15 to 24 year olds and are related to risky or high risk drinking– with concerning drinking patterns commonly found at festivals. Despite the gravity of the alcohol problems, other drug issues continue to remain at the forefront of political conversation.

It makes me question, how festivals and governments are tackling the issue of alcohol binge drinking – especially in social settings, like festivals. Unfortunately, unlike illicit drugs, the social acceptance of alcohol has allowed us to disregard its harm.

I applaud the ACT Government for facilitating a drug initiative to reduce harm and potentially save lives. However, I question whether introducing pill testing machines at festivals, neglects the greater issue at hand – alcohol harm. It is an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked, and there needs to be greater political will in including this issue on the agenda.

Sophie Goddard

Sophie Goddard is a final year communications in media and public affairs student at the University of Canberra, and recently completed a communications internship with FARE Australia.

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