Tragic deaths, media outcry, political pressure, law reform. And so it goes for much of the law that governs us. But in an age in which media outlets exploit highly charged emotional issues for maximum commercial gain, should reactionary sentimentalism play such a dominant role in shaping law reform?
It’s not uncommon for shocking events to prompt impassioned calls for change in the legislation. In fact, one of the key roles of law reform is to respond to the evolving needs and values of the community. Famously, the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre resulted in the establishment of the National Firearms Agreement just five months after the incident. In what was an anomaly for the Howard Government, the reforms proved to be both comprehensive and in the best interests of Australians.
More recently, however, the media’s emotional portrayal of the ‘ideal victim’ has narrowed discourse on social issues and culminated in insufficient and problematic solutions. The scattered vestiges of Sydney’s wounded nightlife provide a sobering reminder of one such solution. With the tragic one-punch deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie as their poignant catalysts for change, the city’s most prominent newspapers launched an emotional campaign to reduce alcohol-related violence in the CBD. It was through this manufactured lens that public discourse was invigorated yet narrowed, ultimately at the cost of reason. Lockouts were equated with saving one punch victims. It didn’t matter that enforcement would become active over three hours after the times that Kelly and Christie were assaulted, or that violence would be displaced to surrounding areas. It didn’t matter that businesses and industries would be crippled while civil liberties were restricted. It didn’t matter that the domestic violence epidemic was ignored.
And history may yet repeat itself. With the current pill testing debate reverberating passionately in the echo chamber of media discourse, consequent law reform would be insufficient in tackling Australia’s illicit drug problem. While pill testing should certainly be implemented at festivals due to its recorded effectiveness in reducing deaths and cleaning drug markets, the current discussion distracts from a much broader social matter. Like 2014, the debate is being narrowed by the media’s evocative portrayal of young victims. Five fatal overdoses at music festivals in the past five months dominate the conversation on drug reform, conflating rational criticism of the status quo with some sort of disregard for the victims’ lives.
In reality, overdoses from illicit drugs at festivals make up a minute fraction of the 2177 yearly drug-related deaths in Australia as of 2016. Additionally, although the youth are at the forefront of current debate, middle-aged Australians between 30 and 59 constitute 70% of all accidental drug-related deaths. This phenomenon can be attributed to the growing prevalence of Opioids and Benzodiazepines largely garnered from medical prescriptions. All five festival overdoses involved MDMA, placing Amphetamines at the centre of discussion despite only being involved in 20% of drug-related deaths. In contrast, Opioids and Benzodiazepines are involved in 82% of all deaths, suggesting that more attention should be placed on the regulation of pharmaceutical treatments. Unfortunately, however, sentimental stories about the structural flaws of the medical industry are rare and narratives of ‘lost youth’ are far more attractive for media outlets, driven by clicks and reacts.
Similarly, debate should focus on the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 2.8 times more likely to die a drug-related death. Unsurprisingly, this rate increases in rural areas. Indeed, inhabitants of rural areas are 23% more likely to suffer a drug-related death than an inhabitant of a metropolitan area, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders making up 51% of all Australians living in remote or very remote areas. While greater social policy is required to ameliorate the entrenched inequality that faces Indigenous Australians, preliminary measures should see the implementation of methadone programs, withdrawal centres, detoxification services, and syringe programs in rural areas.
If the Australian public achieves the sensible policy step of pill-testing, we should be under no illusion that society has solved the complex issues surrounding drug use. Ambitious and much-needed reform needs to look beyond the loudest voices to craft a policy that serves more than just festival attendees.