The State Government is adamant New South Wales won’t be implementing two of the most significant recommendations made by the Deputy Coroner after her inquiry into drug-related deaths at music festivals.
Harriet Graeme’s draft final report, recommends a trial of pill testing as well as the abandonment of sniffer dogs, the reduction of strip searches, and the decriminalisation of drugs taken for personal use at music festivals, amongst 28 other points for consideration.
‘Sufficient evidence’ to support a pill testing trial
While conceding that supervised drug testing wasn’t a ‘magic solution’ Ms Graeme said she was in ‘no doubt whatsoever’ there is sufficient evidence to support a trial in New South Wales.
Now NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has provided his response loud and clear, and surprise-surprise, he says the police service does not support pill testing in any form because it is ‘flawed and unreliable’ and sends a dangerous message of false confidence to young people that the drug they want to take is safe, because there is no such thing.’
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has also dismissed Harriet Graeme’s suggestion.
But so far, the New South Wales State Government’s tough zero tolerance stance, measured by arrests and festival bans, has proven time and again that it is not the most effective way to save lives either, because it usually results in young people ‘loading up’ before entering a festival or event, therefore increasing their risk of overdose.
In fact, during the inquest into five-festival related deaths, the Coroner’s Court heard research suggested that 10 per cent of people who encountered sniffer-dog operations engaged in the dangerous practice of swallowing all of their drugs at once.
The inquiry also looked at the use of drug detection dogs, which have been shown to be ineffective as much as two-thirds of the time, and yet they are usually the only determining factor behind police order a strip search, well as their use by police in determining strip searches, a highly invasive policing procedure that has also faced a barrage of criticism not least of all for its potentially damaging psychological effects but also because in a significant number of cases, it is carried out illegally.
Educating young people about drugs can backfire
The New South Wales’ Government’s other weapon in the war against drugs – education – has also proven to be a double-edged sword, with the Coronial inquest hearing that one student in 20 had tried MDMA by the time they’ve reached year 10.
The risk of providing drug education early is that people will be curious about trying it. On the other hand, leaving drug education later could mean it was ‘too late’ to warn young people of the dangers of drugs.
Pill testing can save lives
Pill testing has been trialled in Europe successfully for many years. In particular the Drug Information and Monitoring System operation in the Netherlands has proven itself to be a system that can assist with not only harm minimisation through drug testing, but also by collecting valuable data that can better inform festival planning and more targeted education. More recently, it’s trail in Canberra has also shown positive results.
It’s important to note that while the Coronial Inquest did highlight the fact that pill testing may save lives, it is not in itself, a complete solution. A range of factors including fixing the problem of ill-equipped first aid services at festivals, as well as intense heat and no access to drinking water, which contributes to dehydration also need to be addressed so that young people can enjoy summer music festivals safely.
But the parents of Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King who died after taking the drug MDMA at music festivals in the summer of 2018/2019 and whose deaths were at the centre of the inquiry are never the less imploring the state government not to ignore the recommendations nor waste an opportunity to try pill testing.
Before these five MDMA-related deaths at music festivals in NSW last summer, there had been only 12 across Australia in the previous decade. But as well as those fatalities, there were 29 pre-hospital intubations at 25 music festivals in the state in 2018-2019, as well as 25 drug-related intensive care admissions, and at least an additional 23 drug-related hospital admissions.