Arguing the Case for Pill Testing at Aussie Music Festivals (Opinion)

Pill testing Australia - The DJ Revolution

With Australian summertime behind us, state governments are still losing the debate over pill testing — yet little has changed!!

The dance music community, and Aussie festival-goers as a whole, have come under fire for their perceived desire of drug-taking whilst attending music events. The festival season in 2018/19 saw a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals, most notably electronic dance events held in New South Wales.

Despite a call for change in policing tactics, certain state governments continue to take a hard-line approach at dance music festivals.

The NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, continues to push the mantra that drug use is illegal, and that they will not encourage ‘a false sense of security’ through the introduction of pill testing.

Meanwhile, strong evidence that pill testing increases the safety of young people has mostly been ignored, with a perception created that this community harbors a unique drug culture.

Let’s not pretend drug use is isolated to dance music culture. The sixties hippie-era endorsed hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, whilst Reggae music is known for its long-standing association with marijuana.

On a wider scale, people regularly partake in recreational drug activity at sporting events, local bars and clubs, and your average house party or other social gatherings. 

It is rare we hear horror stories of people losing their lives in these other environments due to drug use. You may point to this as evidence against my view, however, we cannot ignore how an overbearing police presence at certain Aussie festivals has affected people’s behavior with illicit substances.

Whilst I agree we should acknowledge the current issue within our festival community, I think it’s wrong how the state governments and police aggressively enforce the law on this issue with counter-productive methods.

Arguing the Case for Pill Testing at Australian Music Festivals

Last year, the New South Wales deputy state coroner, Harriet Grahame, led an inquest into the death of six festival-goers between December 2017 and January 2019. Every one of these young lives were tragically lost at music festivals in NSW, with MDMA (ecstasy) playing a part.

In November 2019, the findings and recommendations were presented in a report by the NSW Coroners Court, however loud calls for the introduction of pill testing continues to fall on deaf ears.

But why?

The report serves as an interesting read with many experts providing key data, evidence, and opinion in their respective field. What jumped out for me was the court heard straight from the source, young drug users, about their motivations for drug use and in-particular within environments such as music festivals …

Curiosity, enhanced experiences, fun and connections with others were mentioned as key motives. 

A key expert at the inquest was the course coordinator for addiction studies at Edith Cowan University (WA), Dr Stephen Bright, who provided reasons for drug experimentation with young people being rebellion, escapism and alleviating boredom. Once again, satisfying curiosity and social bonding were served up as motives.

The report also reads that Dr Bright highlighted evidence that most young people experiment with drugs, and for the most part, this pattern of drug use does not lead to drug-related harm. Exactly my view when considering drug use in other environments.

You could argue that such is the process of adolescence, and Dr Bright highlights just that, with evidence of brain development in young people and how this increases risk-taking behaviour until the age of 25.

What’s my point? I can’t see how heavy policing and ‘drug detection dogs’ will alter nature’s way?!

Touching on this, the founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), Mr Paul Dillon, said that ‘‘most young people are keen to know how to keep themselves and their friends as safe as possible’’

I would also agree … which absolutely screams pill testing, no?

It’s unfortunate as we leave Aussie summertime behind for another year, and peak festival season with it, that state governments have introduced minimal change in their approach to harm reduction at such prestigious events.

An over-aggressive police presence continues to swarm Australian music festivals, whilst using police detection dogs despite a disappointing 25% success rate.

This approach has, and will undoubtedly continue to impact the behaviour of drug users,.. but not as intended. Instead of acting as a deterrent, it has driven some festival-goers to ‘preload’ on drugs away from the venue, or in some cases take all their drugs on approach as soon as they fear being apprehended.

Let’s not forget, this is exactly what happened with nineteen-year-old Alex Ross-King, who tragically lost her life after entering FOMO Festival back in January 2019.

Image of sniffer dogs - Pill testing Australia

Detective Superintendent Smith from the ACT police provided evidence at the inquest, explaining how their policing tactics are in stark contrast to that in NSW. Instead of creating an obstacle for patrons with sniffer dogs, the police are there to assist the security staff with their duties, to engage with people and create ‘’a supportive, safe, community environment’’. Which is exactly what everybody wants when attending a music festival.

He also added to the argument against police dogs, describing them as having negative outcomes, quoted as saying we’ve seen the potential harm of people consuming what they have in their pocket or whatever upon sighting a dog that could actually have an adverse effect upon their immediate wellbeing.”

I think it’s fair to say, the dogs are not fit for purpose!

Real-world evidence on a global scale

This brings us to Groovin The Moo festival in ACT, which has trialled pill testing for the past two years. As a test case here, the 2018 analysis was considered a success, with new dangerous drugs detected including the deadly ephylone, which is said to be attributed to a vast number of worldwide overdoses. 

The outcome? …

The carriers placed their pills in the bin, having been able to reconsider their actions due to the knowledge and advice afforded to them from pill testing. Noting that those who used the testing facility were provided wrist bands, and none of the 86 people who received first-aid on the day were wearing them. What’s most important is that nobody lost their life.

Detective Superintendent Smith went on to say, I believe that the co-existence of pill testing and ACT policing at the two Groovin the Moo festivals has been a success.’’ The deputy state coroner also stated there was no evidence to suggest the methods used in ACT would not work in NSW.

(In 2019 Pill Testing Australia provided similar positive results, concluding that they were able to “Successfully provide a pill testing service without incident in a festival environment.”)

We don’t have to look at only one example either, when we know that over 20 countries have effectively implemented pill testing as a means of harm minimization at music festivals since 1990. The evidence is there on a global scale.

Wrapping things up

With all the evidence and expert opinion suggesting current methods are ineffective, what exactly has changed? Simply not enough.

The number one recommendation handed down from the deputy state coroner to the NSW premier was the introduction of pill testing, with a pilot date starting the summer of 2019/20. Which never materialised. 

What we have seen is amnesty bins installed at ‘high risk’ events since late 2019 such as Field Day and Laneway Festival (I also spotted them at Electric Gardens in Sydney last month). And while they may be of some benefit, I cannot see this will alter the desires and motives when it comes to drug use and experimentation …

Only credible information being served to these young people about what they are ingesting will allow them to make informed choices.

The heavy police presence does not act as a deterrent. The statistics of arrests, drug overdoses, and unfortunately deaths over the years supports this view — not to mention the compelling evidence heard at the inquest.

Let’s remove the fear-driven policing, and allow people to attend music festivals with a smile on their face. Let us enjoy the music!

Whilst pill testing may not be the absolute answer, one thing that is for sure: Attempting to forcibly suppress culture through an overbearing police presence isn’t going to solve anything.

Read this next: Australia’s forgotten rave culture.

If you enjoyed reading this, please give it a share — it really helps us! Much love.

Header photo was taken from ‘Days Like This’ Festival in Sydney, 2019. Other image credit to @FrBower on Twitter.

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    Freelance writer for everything dance music culture, Carl is originally from Manchester in the UK. In addition to being a passionate Man Utd supporter, he’s always been an advocate of the dance music scene at home and abroad. Get in touch via email.

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