OPINION: More Festival Deaths, But Govt Continues To Bury Head In The Sand About Pill Testing

18 September 2018 | 11:55 am | Shelley Smith

Ted Noffs Foundation Campaigns & Policy Coordinator Shelley Smith discusses the aftermath of Defqon.1 festival this past weekend, the NSW Government's reaction and why Australia needs pill testing now.

This week we have seen two more deaths at an Australian music festival. Two young people, barely into their twenties, their whole lives ahead of them. Two sets of families now facing unbearable grief and loss.

Each time this has happened we’ve gotten the same stock-standard response from politicians. These were the first deaths to occur at a music festival in New South Wales under Premier Berejiklian, and there was little hope her reaction would be any different to her predecessors. Amidst a promise to shut down Defqon.1, the festival at the centre of this latest tragedy, she had this to say:

“Anyone who is advocating pill testing is giving the green light to drugs that is absolutely unacceptable.”

What is particularly sad about her response is it flies in the face of not only the solid evidence that supports pill testing, but the fact that it is also supported by a majority of Australians.

How can our politicians continue to ignore both science and the electorate, when there have been far too many deaths? We’ve established that we can prevent harm at music festivals, so why do governments continue to bury their heads in the sand?

Earlier this year, a consortium of harm reduction advocates implemented the first legally-sanctioned pill testing trial at Groovin’ The Moo festival in Canberra. We had the full cooperation of the ACT government, law enforcement and the festival promoter. There were no sniffer dogs, and the feedback from those who used the service was overwhelmingly positive. They were grateful for our presence and receptive to the information we provided.

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"Let’s hope we won’t see any more deaths. That’s a huge price to pay for playing politics..."

The results were important too. They provided us with a valuable snapshot of the average quality of the Australian illicit drug market, including - most crucially - the presence of two highly toxic substances.

Long term, the service provides governments and researchers with important data about drug use trends and the shape of the illicit market, which is a valuable contribution to public health policy in relation to drugs.

Far from “giving the green light” to drugs, as the Premier suggests, the purpose that has always been at the very core of pill testing is enhancing engagement with a demographic that will not traditionally access drug-related health services, and providing them with information and strategies so they can take steps to reduce harm to themselves and their friends. Empowering people to make fully-informed decisions about drugs is a central tenet of pill testing that we need to make sure we don’t forget.

The success of the ACT trial has inspired greater advocacy for pill testing to be implemented as part of mainstream health policy in Australia, and for other states and territories to introduce their own trials.

There is overwhelming evidence - both overseas and now in the ACT - that a visible pill testing service that is there to support festivalgoers is the way forward. This is a service that should be actively demanded by both festivalgoers and promoters as an essential part of any live music event.

The next festival in the ACT will be Spilt Milk in November. We look forward to this event as another opportunity to provide a service for festivalgoers who want to take responsibility for the welfare of themselves and their friends.

Until then, let’s hope we won’t see any more deaths.

That’s a huge price to pay for playing politics.