Pill Testing Saves Lives, Heavy Policing Takes Them

Alex Ross-King was only 19, when she died from a drug overdose attending January’s FOMO festival in Parramatta. Last week, at the NSW coronial inquiry into six drug-related deaths at festivals, it was heard that Alex had taken several MDMA capsules prior to the event so as to avoid police detection.

Event attendees taking all their drugs before an event to avoid arrest is referred to as “preloading”. Harm reduction experts have been warning for years that heavy policing at festivals is causing punters to partake in risky drug taking behaviours, like this, to prevent being arrested.

If Ms Ross-King wasn’t expecting to be confronted with a show of brute force on arrival, she likely wouldn’t have taken numerous pills at once. Besides there being no point, she’d be afraid of the consequences. But, in this case, the fear of police was greater than the fear of a drug overdose.

Since the early 90s, people in the Netherlands have been able to access pill testing services at festivals. This means a medical professional can warn them if their drugs are too strong or toxic. They don’t have to fear arrest and they can make an informed decision about taking the drugs.

And as NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian again pushes her “just say no” to drugs stance, rather than conceding a proven harm reduction intervention just might save lives, it feels to many like we’re on some sickening roundabout, with the only progress made being the rising number of deaths.

A head-in-the-sand approach

“This is not the first tragic death in NSW because a young person has preloaded, due to their fear of police drug dog operations,” said NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge. “Unless we change the law, I fear it won’t be the last.”

James Munro died as a result of taking all his drugs at once on spotting police with dogs at the 2013 Defqon.1 festival. To avoid getting arrested, the 23-year-old downed several pills at once and half an hour after gaining entry into the event, he fell into a coma, and never regained consciousness.

“We have a government that’s hellbent on a zero tolerance 1950s approach to drug law enforcement: a theory that abstinence will somehow keep young people safe,” Mr Shoebridge continued. “That approach has been proven tragically wrong.”

The NSW Greens justice spokesperson also stressed that there’s always a number of young people who experiment with drugs. And it’s about time authorities admitted the drug war has failed and look towards alternative measures like pill testing, or further, legalising and regulating MDMA.

3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA)

Veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak explained that ecstasy or MDMA is the main drug youths are taking at music events. An oft-cited 2010 Lancet article found MDMA to be “one of the least risky” of 20 drugs considered, although like all others, it’s “toxicity is greater with higher doses”.

“Doses on the black market have been creeping up and are now not infrequently in a concerning range,” the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president added. “Also, some samples include dangerous contaminants resulting from faulty manufacturing practices.”

The physician further told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that in relation to legalising the drug “the lowest risk form of ecstasy would have to be regulated with careful supervision of the manufacturing process and production of a known and safe dose”.

But, the reality is that MDMA remains illegal, and so does pill testing. And this means that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who take ecstasy annually are consuming a drug that could be relatively benign, but at present, can be rather like playing a game of Russian roulette if taken.

Intimidation, fear and anxiety

Tasked with investigating the drug-related deaths of six festivalgoers, NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame decided to take herself to a music festival in mid-June to see what all the saturation policing fuss was about.

And the coroner described what she found as “full on”. The “lines and lines of police and dogs” she was confronted with made her “feel nervous”. Ms Grahame was surprised by “how intense it was”, as viewing it gave her a “strange sensation”, even though she had “nothing to fear”.

Mr Shoebridge related that he’s been at the entrance to numerous festivals in his capacity as an MP, who’s had “long and deep engagement with the NSW police”. And while he’s usually accompanied by dozens of Sniff Off campaign volunteers at the time, he still feels intimidated.

“The fact that someone in a position of authority like a state coroner feels intimidated should make the government reflect on how intimidating it is for an ordinary young person,” the Greens MLC emphasised.

A question of priorities

In response to a question regarding the use of brute force by NSW authorities as a way of preventing drug deaths at festivals, emergency physician Dr David Caldicott said, “I’m not aware of any public health intervention that required brute force that was in the slightest way successful.”

“What we are seeing in NSW is some sort of macabre political theatre,” the long-time pill testing advocate continued, “there is no evidence to support it, and that for which there is evidence is being ignored.”

As part of the Pill Testing Australia crew, Dr Caldicott was the attending doctor on site at both the first and second government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trials that were held at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in 2018 and last April.

In permitting the trials, the enlightened ACT government has been complicit in having possibly saved the lives of around nine young Australians, whose drug samples were found to contain potentially lethal substances, and therefore, were binned rather than taken.

In NSW, five young people died as a result of untested drugs last summer. The situation in this state reminded Dr Caldicott of a quote from a book he’d picked up earlier this year in the Netherlands: a country, he said, “overtly makes drugs a health issue and is ingenious in its approaches”.

“You cannot control an activity by merely shouting out that it is forbidden,” wrote Jock Young in 1971’s The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. “You must base your measures on facts, and these facts must come from sources that are valued by the people you are trying to influence.”

Leading others into a ditch

However, Ms Berejiklian doesn’t favour the same literature as Dr Caldicott. Instead, she prefers to bang on about how people should avoid taking drugs, while she quotes “facts” – which are sourced from who knows where – about there being a lack of evidence to show that pill testing works.

Dr Wodak said that the leader of the NSW Liberals “claims to be unimpressed by the evidence”, however when she established an expert panel last year to investigate safety at festivals following two drug-related deaths, she specifically told the panel not to consider pill testing.

The doctor set out that while critics argue pill testing hasn’t been evaluated by randomised controlled trials, this is because it’s an environmental intervention, which rules that out. But, it’s still open to peruse the on-the-ground evidence relating to its successful use in other jurisdictions.

“It is hard not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of expert opinion overwhelmingly supporting pill testing in Australia,” Dr Wodak added. “This includes a wide range of medical opinion, as well as academics, researchers and clinicians working in the alcohol and drug field.”

Blood on their hands

The premier dodged questions from reporters last Sunday regarding whether saturation policing at festivals is leading youths to preload and subsequently die. All she had for the NSW constituency was her usual: “don’t take illegal substances, they’re illegal for a reason.”

It’s an old harm reduction adage that new strategies to combat drug war casualties always face harsh resistance. This seems to be especially so in NSW, which was once a pioneer in establishing needle exchanges and a safe injecting room, both of which Dr Wodak brought across the line.

“If this premier doesn’t support pill testing, then the next one will, or the one after the next one,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Deaths will continue, unfortunately, and each premier will be pilloried for every death from now on, until pill testing is approved and implemented.”

Paul Gregoire About Paul Gregoire
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Drug Lawyers, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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