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"The death of the 25-year-old at Stereosonic was both tragic and preventable."

A young woman named Sylvia is the latest Australian to find heart-breaking notoriety by dying at a music festival.

Like all those who’ve died from drug use before her, the death of this 25-year-old at Stereosonic was both tragic and preventable. But lurching towards predictable responses like beefing up law enforcement and police presence at music festivals is not the answer.

A young woman died after taking illicit drugs at the Stereosonic music festival on the weekend.

More creative solutions are required, and harm reduction should be the centrepiece of any response.

Like giving condoms to teenagers or exchanging dirty needles for clean ones, testing drugs that people are going to take, with or without your help, will save lives. It’s currently illegal in Australia – because it’s illegal to take the drugs as well – but that’s not the case in every country.

I visited Portugal earlier this year where they’ve decriminalised all personal drug use. That doesn’t mean drugs are legal to buy or sell, but it means there are no criminal penalties for consuming them. Serious penalties still apply to people dealing drugs, but since 2001 Portugal has poured almost all the money they used to spend on law enforcement into providing treatment and social supports for those who seek help.

Watch Senator Di Natale discussing drug law reform in the Senate earlier this year. Post continues below.

Video via “The

Compared to European neighbours, Portugal is one of the few counties to have witnessed a fall in problematic drug use and addiction. Overdoses and the number of drug-related HIV cases have also fallen dramatically.

That’s Australia’s biggest problem. We’re spending billions fighting a losing battle against illicit drugs — three times as much on law and order as we are on providing treatment.

When I was a GP in Victoria, I saw it for myself. An 18-year-old kid who’d been injecting almost every drug available finally came to me for help, but we weren’t able to get him a bed – there wasn’t anywhere that could provide him treatment. He ended up needing heart surgery to deal with an infection he got from injecting drugs.

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Greens Leader Dr Richard Di Natale. Image: Supplied.

He wasn’t the only one. The patients I saw had a lot in common. They struggled with physical dependence on a drug and they struggled to hold onto those things that anchor us in our lives: family, friends, a job, a stable home, a support network. They often had other health problems to deal with, including mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and psychosis.

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The frustration and helplessness I sometimes felt as a doctor, by this system that was letting people down, has strengthened my resolve to fix it now that I am in a position where I can make a real difference. Australia used to be a world leader but this stalled in the late 90s when John Howard abandoned the groundbreaking prescription heroin trials, which had widespread support, and retreated on our progress around harm reduction.

We must restart the conversation, not only because our current approach is failing to reduce drug related deaths and injuries, but because there’s growing evidence that it’s making things worse.

Sniffer dogs, for example, get it wrong two-thirds of the time. They have an appalling track record when it comes to recording convictions for drug possession and it’s well known that some festival goers swallow all their pills at once to avoid getting caught by a sniffer dog. The consequence is that some have overdosed and died, out of fear of being caught for possession.

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Senator Richard Di Natale in Portugal with Dr Nuno Capaz and Dr João Goulão, one of the architects of Portugal’s drug policy who will speak at Australia’s National Drug Summit in March. Image: Supplied.

On Saturday night, as Sylvia died in Concord Hospital, newspapers were being distributed around the country announcing a National Drug Summit I’m co-hosting with Liberal MP Sharman Stone and Labor’s Melissa Parke. It will take place at the Parliament House in March, preceded by a number of roundtables in communities across the country to bring together the broad range of people who care about this issue and have been affected by it, from policy makers to police, to health and social service providers, discuss everything from pill testing to ice to decriminalisation.

We need to look at drug use as a health issue, not a law and order issue. Until we do, we are going to see more people die, more people harmed and more families affected by this problem. It’s not fair on police, who can’t solve a health problem with dogs and handcuffs. It’s not fair on families who can’t get treatment for their loved ones. We need to make sure people with severe drug problems who want help can get it – quickly, easily and affordably.

A former GP, Richard Di Natale is Senator for Victoria and leader of the Australian Greens. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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