By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Just last month, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller expressed the view that our law enforcement’s current ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drugs is ‘working’, and that pill testing is not an option for our state.
In the same breath, he was adamant police would not be implementing two of the most significant recommendations made by NSW Deputy Coroner Harriet Graeme after her inquiry into drug-related deaths at music festivals.
Ms Graeme’s draft final report is the culmination of months of inquiry into the harrowing drug-related deaths of several teenagers at music festivals. In it, she makes recommendations for a trial of pill testing and the abandonment of sniffer dogs, as well as the reduction of strip searches, and the decriminalisation of drugs taken for personal use at music festivals, amongst 28 other points for consideration.
Another drug-related music festival death
But, as the summer season of music festivals kicked off with Strawberry Fields this weekend, one life has already been lost to a suspected overdose.
A 24-year old man allegedly consumed a cocktail of illicit drugs before he was brought to a medical tent.
Medical staff were told he had consumed multiple substances including GHB, MDMA and cocaine.
Soon after, he suffered a fatal heart attack and, despite the efforts of the medical staff, he was pronounced dead in the early hours of Sunday morning.
An avoidable death?
Of course, it is too early to tell whether his death could have been avoided. An autopsy and toxicology reports will help to piece together what occurred in the lead up to the tragedy.
There will be questions about the purity of the drugs in his body, the amount of drugs he had consumed, the circumstances which led him to ingest the drugs, and whether the medical staff were adequately equipped to deal with his situation.
This information will be crucial to understanding the final hours of this young man’s life.
Young people will take drugs, despite the law
But what remains abundantly clear, and consistent in this tragedy and the others that have gone before it, is that young people are still taking drugs at music festivals, despite what the law says and the use of law enforcement tools such as drug detection dogs.
During the same weekend, 13 people were allegedly found in possession of drugs at another gig in New South Wales, Festival X, at Sydney Olympic Park.
Was the coronial inquest in vain?
And, as countless of experts have already pointed out, it’s remiss of us to ignore the fact young people will continue to take drugs because, in doing so, we continue to do nothing to minimise the chance of death.
As a result of last year’s coronial inquest, which looked into deaths at festivals, the behaviour of young people when sniffer dogs are present, as well as the potential impact of pill testing, we have a great deal of information about why young people have died and how this might be prevented.
As the Coroner’s Court heard, research suggests that 10 per cent of people who encounter sniffer dog operations engage in the dangerous practice of swallowing all of their drugs at once, which can lead to overdose.
What’s more, the Court heard the dogs produce false positives – where they make a positive indication but no drugs are found – two-thirds of the time at festivals, and yet they are being used to justify bodily searches, including invasive and humiliating strip searches.
LECC hearings into strip searches
This week, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) is set to begin public hearings into the strip-searches carried out at the Lost City music festival, an under-18s event held in Sydney in February.
The hearings are part of an ongoing investigation by the LECC, which has already heard a number of distressing stories from the Splendour in the Grass Music Festival.
If there is one positive to come out of the weekend’s music festivities, it is that it would appear that the New South Wales police may have conceded on one of the recommendations from Assistant Coroner Harriet Graeme’s report – decriminalising illicit drugs for personal use.
CINs are also known as ‘on-the-spot fines’ and mean that police can fine a person rather than sending them to court. CINs do not come with a criminal record, but a person may face the prospect of a criminal record if they elect to challenge the fine by taking the case to court.
Over the coming months, music festivals will face much higher scrutiny than ever before, particularly in light of findings of last year’s coronial inquest.
The NSW government remains under increasing pressure to change its current tactics for policing drugs at music festivals, particularly its stance on pill-testing as a harm minimisation measure, which it has steadfastly refused to consider.
Only time will tell whether or not the Coronial Inquest’s recommendations will be followed.