Australian summer, like clockwork, brings with it sweltering heat, the droning chorus of cicadas, an onslaught of tourist dollars, and our annual run of music festivals, covering genres from hardcore punk and metal to dance and electronica. Devastatingly, it’s starting to look like our summers are similarly accompanying a rising drug-related death toll at these very events. We saw festival deaths in the summers of 2015, 2016, 2017, and again in 2018. Each year, kids simply looking to enjoy music with their friends purchase and consume drugs at festivals. Each year, some of these kids don’t go home to their families.
Because drugs like MDMA and cocaine, those most commonly found in the “pingers” widely consumed as party drugs, are illegal, and therefore unregulated, the pills themselves vary enormously in strength, potency and composition. Dealers and manufacturers operating outside the confines of the law have no obligation to include in their pills what they’re advertising, nor any obligation not to include dangerous toxic substances.
Despite the rising death toll, the New South Wales government has stated their opposition to pill testing. This position is, of course, informed by the criminalisation and stigmatisation of drug use as a pastime for criminals, despite the documented fact that a large proportion of those who use illicit drugs are not engaged in criminal behaviour, 11.6% percent of people of drug users present for misuse or abuse. However, NSW Premier Gladys Bereklijan has recently announced that would consider pill testing measures pending evidence that such an approach would save lives.
SMART Recovery Australia maintains a firm harm minimisation stance when it comes to any drug-related issue. Although we encourage all participants to be mindful of their consumption, and advise that the best way to avoid the dangers of pill consumption is to avoid pills altogether, we recognise that thousands of Australians will still take pills.
It’s clear that criminalisation of drugs doesn’t prevent their widespread consumption. However, the installation of dedicated pill testing stations would allow consumers to make an informed decision about what they’re putting into their bodies.
David Caldicott has been testing pills at festivals for years now, with this exact goal in mind. He argues that, while this step is vital in minimising harm to individuals and communities, dedicated brick-and-mortar pill testing centres would be an invaluable tool in the harm minimisation arsenal. Such an approach would also allow trained experts to test street drugs (rather than party drugs) such as the opioid fentanyl, which is currently claiming lives across the US and in regional NSW and Victoria.
Similarly, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has adopted a “Just Say No to more kids dying” stance on pill testing. Palmer says he would “love to support a “Just Say No [that is, abstinence-based]” campaign, if it had any chance of success”, but recognises the “indisputable success” of the Kings Cross Supervised Medical Injecting Centre, as a driving factor in the push for pill testing.
In the coming weeks and months, SMART Recovery meetings across Australia will see an influx of new attendees who were caught with illicit substances at festivals, bars, and clubs, just like last summer, or the summer before that. It’s now up to the government to decide whether to pursue the current strategy, or adopt an approach proven to save lives.