opinion

Two young people are dead. That's why the government needs to introduce pill testing. 

30,000 people converged at the Sydney Regatta Centre, just outside of Penrith, for the Defqon 1 festival last weekend. They came to dance, and by the end of it, two young people had lost their lives. 23-year-old Joseph Pham from Edensor Park, and a 21-year-old woman from Melbourne. Our thoughts are with their friends and families in this time of grief, and naturally we look to how we can spare others the pain of losing loved ones.

These deaths have prompted the Premier to declare, “I never want to see this event held in Sydney or NSW ever again. We will do everything we can to shut this down.”

The benefits of music festivals have since been acknowledged, and I’m glad I don’t need to defend them. Their contributions to our economy and culture deserve more than that. But there is clearly a dangerous element which must be addressed.

Let’s look at the facts. In 2016, 18.78 million tickets were issued to live performance events, generating ticket revenue of $1.43 billion. That doesn’t include the food and beverage and transport and merchandise etc. This is clearly big business. That’s more than the combined attendances at AFL, NRL, Soccer, Super Rugby, Cricket and NBL. About 1.5 million of those tickets were for festivals.

Now at the same time, there are about 5,500 deaths per year from drugs at festivals. Wait, no, sorry, that’s alcohol. Drugs at festivals is about 60. No hold on again, sorry. That’s organised sports. Drugs at festivals is about five. Five deaths. Maybe 10, depending on the year.

The vast majority of people who have chosen to take drugs at festivals appeared to have a good time. Some didn’t, and a handful have died. Way less than have died playing sport, but still. We don’t want people to die. So how can we help prevent it?

The current strategy involves spending millions of dollars on an almost military-style operation. Hundreds of officers are deployed with dogs, and punters are made to walk an intimidating gauntlet just to see their favourite artists play.

359 people were searched at Defqon, and only 69 were found with drugs. An 81 per cent false positive rate is a startling waste of public funds. Especially given how many drugs got in anyway, and especially given that under this policy, two people just died.

Sniffer dogs at Good Vibrations festival in Sydney in 2011. Image: Getty.
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So where to next? More of the same, vainly trying to stop all drugs at all costs? It’s difficult to see how it could deliver different result.

A taskforce has been established to try and figure out what to do. BUT – there is no youth representative, no one from the music industry, no festival organisers, and no drug and harm minimisation expert. And apparently, the government won’t even listen to their findings if they don’t conform to their current policies.

There is a tried and tested solution to this problem, which costs virtually nothing, can be implemented immediately, and literally saves lives. Pill testing has been introduced in America and across most of Europe, and it has succeeded in preventing deaths.

Pill testing made its debut in Australia at ‘Groovin the Moo’ in the ACT in 2018, where two batches were found to have lethal contaminants. Those drugs, which otherwise would have been taken, were not, and lives were saved. Right there and then. The government policies of dissuading people from buying them failed, the provision of pill testing stepped in and saved them.

But the Premier insists: "Anyone who advocates pill testing is giving the green light to drugs, that is absolutely unacceptable, there is no such thing as a safe drug," she said last week.

“If something is illegal, it is not OK to break the law... We need to embark on a process where we provide solutions in terms of potential education which says to people it is not OK to have this increase in culture which says it is OK to have illegal drugs and try something that you don’t know the source of.”

The world is a complicated place, and politics can be difficult. We need nuance, to be able to navigate a path through an illegal thing which substantial numbers of people are doing and will continue to do. And it’s beginning to look like our leaders lack that nuance. If so, they are not fit to govern.

Let’s roll with the traffic light analogy. Pill testing is not a green light. At best it is an orange light, urging caution, in which case you’re back where you were before you had testing – taking it. But sometimes, it’s a red light, and that’s when it makes all the difference.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has insisted anyone who advocates pill testing is giving the green light to drugs. Image: Getty.
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The Premier is right, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of a drug, and it never claimed to. (The current approach certainly doesn’t either). It’s not about a false sense of security, it’s about providing a real sense of danger. What pill testing does is tell you when it is definitely NOT safe to proceed, by giving a RED light. A negative result doesn’t tell you it’s safe, it just leaves you right where you were before. And that is the best chance that parents have of knowing that their children are safe.

As it is, there are no lights at all. And people are crashing. So yes, put some bloody traffic lights in. That is literally the job of the State Government.

To refuse to even consider such a measure is a reckless dereliction of duty. Whether you think drugs are bad, good, or neither, people are going to keep taking them. If, as the premier and police both say, we are genuinely committed to doing everything we can to ensure that people can enjoy these events safely, then they need to take their heads out of the sand and look at the big picture.

If the objection really is that ‘it is inappropriate to turn a blind eye to what is illegal’, fair enough. That’s understandable. So let’s change the laws. If you don’t want to do that, then I’m afraid we need to go back to the blind eye. You can have dogs at the entrance, but you need to have a corner inside where people can go to test their drugs for lethal contaminants. Or don’t, and they die. It’s really up to you.

The Premier has famously said, “Good governments stay out of people’s lives and give them the freedom to make their own choices.” She also said, “There is no point being in government if you don’t listen to the community”. The community is crystal clear on this. The chorus is almost universal, led by musicians, festival goers, doctors, ex police, certain MPs, and even the parents of those who died.

The current approach is a phenomenal waste of energy which prevents nothing and literally leads to deaths. You can work towards whatever solution you want, but not even considering pill testing in the meantime is failing your duty of care.

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