By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
One of our state’s most popular music festivals, Splendour in the Grass has commenced in Byron Bay. The annual festival boasts more than 100 music acts, and attracts around 42,000 people each year.
And yes, along with the revellers, the festival also attracts a heavy police presence and drug detection drugs.
It’s no surprise that police have issued their standard pre-festival warning, that ‘anyone caught with illegal substances will be dealt with accordingly.’
It’s the same old rhetoric, time and again. The enforcement of which is costing young lives.
Young people and drugs
Currently, there are two State Government-led inquiries into the relationship young people have with illegal drugs in New South Wales.
The first, set up in November last year, is specifically examining drug use.
The second is the coronial inquest into the deaths of six young people, Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King, all of whom suffered drug-related deaths at music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.
Tragic revelations are emerging from the coronial inquest – of medical staff inadequately trained and inexperienced in treating drug overdoses, of limited medical resources on site, and ‘disorganised’ emergency care responses, all of which have, in some way, contributed to the deaths of young people whose final hours have been depicted as painful and distressing.
The coronial inquest has heard evidence that over-policing at the FOMO Festival led to one young festival goer taking almost three MDMA pills in panic all at once. He later died as a result. Another’s death was preceded by violent police behaviour, with a witness testifying that an officer punched him in the face as he began to exhibit symptoms of a seizure.
Others have complained about the way police conduct strip searches, intimidating and humiliating patrons – treating them as if they are guilty until proven otherwise.
Pill-testing has been a strong theme. And in recent days, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame has expressed interest in attending Splendour in the Grass herself, to see first-hand a pill testing demonstration by Dr David Caldicott, who has long been an outspoken advocate for the harm minimisation practise.
NSW Government insists on ‘zero-tolerance’
Despite the deaths and a wealth of evidence from overseas that pill-testing saves lives, as well as strong backing for the practise by a range of experts including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Medical Association and former Australian federal police commissioner, the NSW government is clinging to the status quo: The ‘zero- tolerance’ policy which includes deploying hundreds of police officers, sniffer dogs, strip searches and the long arm of the law, and the rejection of harm minimisation.
Our Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s direction to young people is ‘don’t take illegal drugs’.
This is not only completely out of touch with reality, it ignores vital facts that we already know.
Currently, the Australian Capital Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia which has conducted pill testing trials, and the preliminary findings of these trials overwhelmingly supported evidence from overseas where pill testing is commonplace, and that is, it provides people with information to make a choice, and therefore does save lives.
Australians have one of the highest consumption rates of MDMA (“ecstasy”) in the world. And, sadly, because MDMA is an unregulated drug, Australian ecstasy has also been found to contain the highest amount of unknown and potentially deadly substances, because, on the black market producers and suppliers to fill their tablets with whatever they want.
In a study of ecstasy pills from several countries including the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, Australian tablets were found to contain the highest amount of “unknown ingredients” as well as the highest amount of potentially deadly substances including PMA/PMMA, a highly toxic compound linked to deaths both in Australia and overseas.
These considerations alone, should be case enough for the introduction of pill testing.
It has been proven overseas that the practice does not lead to an increase in use, but actually offers a valuable opportunity for professionals to engage with, and educate drug users. It offers too, a chance for young people who may be feeling ‘peer pressure’ to find a ‘respectable way out’ and ditch the drugs, without fear of losing face with their friends.
For many it is simply maddening that the NSW Government continues to defy the very many positives of pill-testing and the mounting ground-swell of support for it, not just in NSW, but right across Australia, and not just anxious parents or curious young people, but those who believe that there is enough evidence that it will save lives.
Most of us have had enough of playing Russian Roulette with young people’s lives. And, yes, while these young people should each be responsible for the decisions they make, isn’t that exactly what pill testing is about? Ensuring they have the information they need to make an informed choice?
Perhaps there is however, some hope on the horizon. The Government inquiry mentioned earlier which is tasked with looking at drug use across the state, was originally undertaking specific research into the use of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as ICE, but earlier this year it’s brief was expanded to include other illicit drugs such as MDMA, which means that it will also look into the benefits of pill testing.
When final recommendations are made from both the coronial inquest and the drug-use inquiry are handed down, it can only be hoped that the Government retains an open mind on the issue of pill testing. Not to do so would be a complete waste of time, resources and taxpayer funds.