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Until Legalization, Allow Users To Test For Tainted Drugs

02/07/2017 10:48 EST | Updated 02/07/2017 11:09 EST

Recently the City of Toronto's Board of Health passed a motion directing the city to explore creating a strategy for risk management for electronic music festivals. This is a step in the right direction to address a big drug problem: tainted substances taken by the unwary at these events.

An interim move should be to permit such drugs to be tested for adulterants without fear of criminal sanctions. But, ultimately, we need to move to legalize and regulate these and other drugs, for a number of reasons: to stop putting people in jail, confront an illicit market run by the lawless, provide governments with a revenue stream, better protect children, implement a full range of harm reduction measures. And, as the problems at music festivals illustrate, address trafficking in poisoned substances.

ecstasy drug

(Photo: Getty Images)

This December in Toronto, at least three young people suffered suspected overdoses at nightclubs. In August 2014 two young people died as a result of drugs they had taken at an electronic dance music festival in Toronto. At that same festival, 15 other people were hospitalized (and survived). There were also 22 hospitalizations during the Digital Dreams festival in June, and 29 at a DJ show in May.

That same year there were at least 28 festival deaths around the world. Many of these hospitalizations/deaths were from tainted substances. Tainted ecstasy (MDMA) has often been the culprit.

digital dreams festival

The 2015 Bud Light Digital Dreams Electronic Music Festival on June 28, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Sonia Recchia/WireImage)

There is evidence that drug use is falling among young people. But the problem of drugs that are tainted or of unknown strength has reached such proportions at music festivals that health providers and others have urged that pill-testing procedures be available at venues so that substance users can be given reliable information regarding ingredients. How effective these measures will be in preventing poisonings and even persuading young ones to stay away from this stuff is a good question. But we won't know the answer unless we try them.

In the meantime, in the U.K., activists have started the "crush-dab-wait" initiative. Users are urged to crush any pill they purchase, regardless of what they've been told it contains, dab the contents with their fingertip and taste the contents, then wait at least an hour to gauge any side effects before ingesting the rest of the pill.

crushed pill

(Photo: Opel_RU via Getty Images)

There is a contrary position. It suggests that those who use should just stop. Stop buying drugs; stop using them. You can't get sick or die if you don't put this stuff in your body. Some might go even further and suggest that the possibility of harmful adulterants or infections are a useful deterrent to use. Those who aren't stopped by criminal prohibition may be by the prospect of getting sick or dying because drugs are unregulated and trafficked in by those who have no concern for the safety and welfare of others. And there may, indeed, be some who are deterred from use because of the prospect of being poisoned by tainted substances.

But the opposite is also the case. Despite criminal prohibition and the prospect of becoming ill or even dying, people still use drugs. Regulating the sale of substances would allow for their testing and other measures to assure that they are what they purport to be. The goal would be to have all drugs free of any taint and clearly labelled in terms of strength and other critical information.

Test drugs - prevent sickness and death.

In instances in which such requirements were not complied with, the identity of suppliers and others in the distribution chain would be known so they could be made to bear legal and other responsibilities.

Test drugs -- prevent sickness and death.

More generally, this is the quandary: Do we as a society take over and regulate the supply and quality of drugs, or do we leave these issues to the forces of an unbridled market operating in a dark underworld? These are the stark choices.

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