Until this week you probably hadn't heard of Dr Alex Wodak. The physician has since made headlines with his vow to offer drug tests at music festivals. Despite significant backlash from government and police, Wodak seems resolute, "I am prepared to break the law to save young people's lives," he told Fairfax Media.
Dr Wodak has spent his entire career advocating for drug reform and isn't one to shy from a fight. "With some of these things it's not easy but sometimes as a last resort you need to think about civil disobedience," he told VICE.
Back in the 1980s, Dr Wodak played a central role in setting up Australia's first needle and syringe program—an attempt to limit the risk of intravenous drug users spreading HIV/AIDS and other infections by sharing needles. "Various major threats were made to me about what would happen to me, and what the police would do to me, charge us with," Wodak says. "But I knew then that we were right.
"If the government didn't allow this to happen quickly we were looking at a high probability of a severe HIV epidemic. Putting the genie back in the bottle was going to be very difficult."
On the 12 November 1986, Wodak and his colleagues defied the then-NSW Labor government and launched an illegal needle exchange program in Darlinghurst. This is probably the reason Australia never saw more than three percent of intravenous drug users diagnosed with HIV. In the US however, more than 17 percent of people diagnosed with HIV in 1985 were intravenous drug users. This was the height of the AIDS epidemic and it's probable that early interventions in Australia, such as the needle exchange and the Medically Supervised Injecting Room in Kings Cross, curtailed the worst of it.
It's something you hear quite a lot—that Australia was once a leader in drug reform, but we've fallen behind. And it's not as though the problem of harmful drug use has gone away. What we're world leaders in now is consumption: MDMA, cannabis, ice—we take them at higher rates per capita than almost any other country. On top of that we're arresting and prosecuting people for drug offences at all time high levels. The death of seven young Australians over the last year at music festivals seems to have snapped the country out of its apathy on the issue, and prompted the question: Is what we're doing working?
"I've been feeling uncomfortable about this for a long time, but it just got overwhelming for me when seven young Australians lost their lives going to these music events, taking pills, and then ending up dead," Dr Wodak said.
"Apart from those deaths, we also had an increasing number of young Australians who were so ill they required hospitalisation, but at least they didn't die. That also bothered me a lot."
What Dr Wodak wants to do, along with emergency medicine specialist Dr David Caldicott and drug reform campaigner Will Tregoning of Unharm, is set up a lab-quality testing service at an Australian music festival. This would allow festivalgoers to have their drugs tested to see whether they're safe for consumption. Another important element is the safe-disposal bins: if someone finds out their drugs aren't what they thought, they have the option to dump them securely.
Stereosonic music festival was the first to come forward and welcome Dr Wodak's program. Last year, a 19-year-old man died after taking drugs at the festival's Adelaide event. Two other people overdosed in Adelaide, and another 20 at their show in Brisbane.
The NSW Government's response has been swift, with deputy premier Troy Grant threatening Wodak, Caldicott, and anyone else involved with arrest for supplying drugs, and even manslaughter. Premier Mike Baird told Sunrise that his government wouldn't use taxpayer dollars to support illegal drug dealers. His advice to partiers: "Don't do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don't take the pills and you'll be fine."
Dr Wodak says he has a lot of respect for both Mike Baird and Troy Grant but is disappointed with their response. Does he plan to move forward with the testing? "Of course, we're all committed to going ahead with this and we will."
But of course, pill testing targets just one facet of Australia's drug problem. Advocates around the country are calling for radical change—decriminalisation and even full legalisation. As someone with decades of experience in drug reform, this is something Dr Wodak also backs.
"Criminalising drugs, which we have done for over half a century has covered a period in Australia where the drug market has continued to expand and become more dangerous, where deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence have all continued to increase," he says. "The trend is very clear compared to the 1960s, when we started moving down this path, things have gone from bad to worse."
However, he is clear that any drug reform can't just focus on changing the laws, it also needs to address the systematic and social reasons people engage in harmful drug use: more treatment, medically supervised injecting rooms, and better regulation.
"As much as I support the idea of reducing and where possible eliminating criminal sanctions from people who traffic, buy, or use illicit drugs that's not enough on its own. That's only part of the answer," he says.
"We also have to accept that where we have extensive poverty, severe disadvantage, where young people have no hope for the future, drug use will be a considerable problem and people will get into a lot of trouble when they use drugs."
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