I was pleased to read Andrew Little's announcement that legal drug testing would be permitted at festivals over the 2020-21 summer.
The tragic deaths last year of concert-goers in Australia caused by drugs which turned out to be lethal were a salutary reminder of the dangers of purchasing and using recreational drugs where the source and contents are unknown.
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This has long been a dilemma for concert organisers. During my tenure as Chair of Regional Facilities Auckland, we had an in-depth debate following the Australian tragedy regarding the possibility of RFA setting up drug-testing facilities at Western Springs and Mount Smart stadiums.
Although the board was strongly in favour of permitting this, our hands were tied because to allow drug-testing would have meant the RFA (and its board) would be committing an offence under section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
In the end we were limited to noting that we would support the operation of a drug-testing facility if legally possible, and urging Auckland Council to lobby for a change in the law.
Leaving aside one's view of recreational drug use, the harsh reality is use will continue to occur at concerts and festivals regardless of the opposition of individuals (and politicians).
Surely, it is more important that someone's son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter comes home safely rather than suffering the potentially fatal consequences of a toxic drug. By all means, increase education and the availability of information about the dangers of drug-taking.
Continue to disapprove if you must. But to actively withhold safe testing facilities makes no sense at all.
Andrew Little should be commended for this initiative. It is not before time.
Of course, this is just part of a wider debate regarding the use, and abuse, of drugs of all kinds in our country. The recent "no" vote for cannabis legalisation (with a 50.7 per cent majority) shows how split the community is on the issue. But I believe that in many ways we asked the wrong question.
We must acknowledge that drugs are widely available in our community and that by making use a criminal offence we drive supply into the hands of criminals and use into the shadows.
Inevitably this leads to a vicious circle of drug use leading to crime (often petty in nature) in order to fund further use. The evidence from more enlightened countries such as Portugal, where possession of all drugs for personal use was decriminalised in 2001, is overwhelming.
Portugal's move towards a more health-focused approach linked to broader social policy changes has delivered significant benefits, with declining drug use among the most at-risk demographic, those aged 15 to 24. Lifetime use, generally of "lifestyle" drugs such as cannabis, marginally increased, but some observers suggest that removing the criminal stigmatisation of drug use led to more people openly admitting they were already users.
Crucially, drug-related criminal activity declined, possibly due to the decreased street value of most illicit drugs, reducing the need to resort to crime to feed a habit. Drug-related deaths dropped significantly, with Portugal's drug death toll sitting at one-sixth of the EU average.
I believe that Andrew Little's initiative should become the basis for a wider debate.
We should recognise that a mature approach to the use of drugs is necessary. Often drug use is linked to the social and economic pressures and mental health problems impacting large portions of our society, and a significant proportion of our prison inmates have convictions for drug-related offences. We can continue to throw money at treatment, but it is clear to me that we need to be more creative in our response and look to tackle the issues at source.
It is time to move away from legalisation and focus upon decriminalisation.
Our leaders talk about well-being and a caring society. They now have an historic mandate to reshape our country.
Why not use it?
• Entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes is a former chair of Regional Facilities Auckland; the innovator behind the 4 Day Week; and the founder of Perpetual Guardian, among other entities.