ACT Government Minister Shane Rattenbury’s admission that he had taken MDMA or ecstasy in his youth has led to a string of ACT politicians revealing their drug use in response to questions from the media.
Police Minister Mick Gentleman said he had tried cannabis in the 1970s, and Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he once ate a hash cookie but it was left to the Greens’ Caroline Le Couteur to go the full Monty.
Ms Le Couteur told the ABC she “was an ageing hippie from Nimbin”, who had “smoked dope”, “grown dope” and “taken acid”.
Mr Rattenbury, who has written to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian with NSW Greens upper house member Cate Faehrmann calling on her to consider pill testing at music festivals, told the ABC that like many 20-somethings he had been in a spur-of-the-moment situation at a party and thought it could be interesting.
But he didn’t like the experience and never did it again.
Mr Rattenbury, who is Justice and Corrections Minister but also the Greens spokesperson for drug law reform, admits to being naive at the time but it was an era when there was little information and young people were expected to just say no.
“There was no information on the dangers, not that sense that these are dodgy pills made in backyards by people who don’t care about your welfare and they just want to make a buck out of you, and in your twenties you have this sense of being indestructible, that you can try anything and survive it because that’s how you go as a male in your twenties,” Mr Rattenbury said.
He remains grateful that nothing bad happened but the experience drives him to advocate for harm-minimisation measures such as pill testing.
“We need to treat it as a health issue and talk to young people in a sensible way, something different to just saying no,” he said.
“I did something that in hindsight probably was a really risky thing to do and probably should not have done it.
“That goes to why pill testing is important and to be upfront with young people because they are in situations where their friends influence them – ‘maybe I’ll try this, it could be fun.’ I was lucky I got away with it.”
He also tried cannabis once, but like another more famous politician, did not inhale. “I didn’t smoke and because I was an athlete I couldn’t inhale it. I was a hopeless drug taker,” said Mr Rattenbury who was a top-level triathlete in his youth.
Calling Ms Faehrmann’s decision to disclose her drug-taking as courageous, he said it was up to others to decide whether they do the same but he didn’t think it would have any impact with voters either way.
The pair implore the Premier to change her mind on pill testing in the light of the summer’s festival deaths, and look to the Groovin the Moo trial in Canberra last year for the benefits of an evidence-based approach.
They also expressed concern that NSW could be exposed to more dangerous drugs if pill testing continues in the ACT, with wary dealers offloading lower quality pills in NSW.
Mr Rattenbury called Ms Berejiklian’s stance morally reprehensible when young people are dying because of unwise decisions.
“That the reality for a lot of young people. They don’t go out to be law-breakers. They don’t necessarily do it often. They certainly don’t want to die as a result of it,” he said.
He said a pill testing tent at a music festival was not a licence to take drugs.
“It’s actually an opportunity for the medical professionals to have a conversation with people, and it’s a conversation I never had. I grew up in an era where the philosophy was just ‘no’. No information, no education, no warning other than some old person telling you not to do it. It’s not effective for a 20 something-year-old, and when you come into a pill testing facility, it’s a conversation you have with someone in a lab coat which is an entirely different experience.
“I have been to two separate pill testing facilities. I’ve watched them both in operation, and I can guarantee you they are not in there saying this is a great idea. Quite the contrary.”
He urged other politicians to be less ideological, look at the evidence and take the advice of the experts, such as Canberra’s Dr David Caldicott, who have seen the consequences in emergency departments.
“We need a policy based on evidence and the real world, not the world we wish we could live in,” Mr Rattenbury said.
The ACT Government is in talks with the consortium which conducted the Groovin’ the Moo trial for a second trial to be held at the same festival when it is staged at the Government-owned Exhibition Park in April.