After Two Deaths At Defqon.1, The NSW Premier Wants To Ban The Festival, But Refuses To Have A Grown-Up Conversation About Pill Testing

Gladys Berejiklian wants to shut down the dance festival, as well as any discussion of a strategy that's already saved lives in Australia this year.

It’s a horrific start to summer festival season already: two people are dead and at least three more are critically ill after collapsing at the Defqon.1 dance event in Sydney yesterday.

A 23-year-old and a 21-year-old both died in Nepean Hospital, and while no official cause of death has been reported, the media and political conversation is all about drugs.

Renewed calls for officially sanctioned drug checking trials to begin in NSW were met with the usual brick wall.

“Anyone who advocates pill-testing is giving the green light to drugs. There is no such thing as a safe drug and unfortunately when young people think there is, it has tragic consequences,” state premier Gladys Berejiklian reportedly said, later adding that she would seek to ensure the event would no longer be allowed in NSW.

The word “safe” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. Taking any kind of illicit, psychoactive or intoxicating substance is a risk. People who do it know there’s a risk, but it’s a calculated one. It’s not that drug users believe it’s definitely safe – they believe it’s probably safe. They believe that they’ll be taking the drug they paid for.

The relatively minor risk of harm isn’t enough to turn a significant number of people off the idea of an afternoon or night of feeling euphoric, energised and connected.

When politicians and others advocating against harm minimisation strategies say something like “there’s no such thing as a safe drug” they’re conflating the risk of the substance you’re planning on ingesting and the substances you don’t know you’re ingesting.

Pure MDMA, for example, is “one of the least dangerous drugs known” according to drug policy and harm minimisation experts Alex Wodak and Gideon Warhaft.

But molly is a black-market product, adulteration is very common, and the odds of getting pure MDMA aren’t in the buyer’s favour. A death might result from an overdose – as strength and dosage can’t be confirmed or regulated either – but it also might result from contaminants.

When the ACT pill testing trial finally managed to go ahead at Groovin’ The Moo’s Canberra leg this year, there were two samples found that had lethal substances in them.

That’s at least two potential deaths or serious injuries averted.

At the UK’s Secret Garden Party festival in 2016, a drug checking facility saw a quarter of users ditch their drugs after finding they weren’t what they’d paid for.

Defqon.1, the event, is safe. Drugs should be as safe as possible – people are always going to take them, but they are currently being denied accurate and relevant information about what they’re taking.

Prohibition and over-policing is not safe. Young people are going out and putting the party-drug equivalents of homemade bathtub gin in their bodies because the only message coming from the government is the laughably unrealistic insistence on abstinence.

Pill testing isn’t encouraging people to take drugs any more than, say, giving out free condoms in a high school health class is encouraging teenagers to have sex.

It’s an acknowledgement of the reality that they’re going to do it anyway, and a signal that people’s actual lives and safety are valued over the pursuit of a hypothetical utopia where nothing bad ever happens. It’s not a green light – it’s a seatbelt, a crash test, a sign that says CAUTION on a dicey stretch of highway. 

The time for empty finger-wagging – and demonising promoters and clubs, who are actively being denied opportunities to keep their patrons safe – is over.

Pill Testing At Groovin’ The Moo Found Deadly Substances, And Nobody Died – What More Proof Do You Need?

The pill-testing trial finally went ahead at Groovin' The Moo Canberra on Sunday, and two samples had a deadly substance. That's actually the best possible outcome.

We finally had a pill testing trial at an Australian festival on the weekend. As was widely reported, Groovin’ The Moo allowed a group of harm minimisation advocates to set up a testing tent at their Canberra leg – and out of over 80 tested samples, two were found to be potentially lethal.

This is genuinely fantastic news.

What better way to prove the necessity of pill testing than to show that two or more people (depending on how many mates were sharing the tainted party treats) could potentially have died if they’d blindly taken something they’d bought in good faith?

As a result, nobody died from ingesting the substance, N-Ethylpentylone – which has been linked to mass overdoses in Europe – and as reported by Vice, authorities are now aware that it’s present in the ACT thanks to the testing trial specifically.

No death good! Poison being sold to young people bad!

There are plenty of people who still argue that pill testing shouldn’t go ahead because encourages people to think drugs are “safe”. But people are taking drugs and rolling the dice even though they know it isn’t necessarily safe – we all did Happy Healthy Harold, and the payoff of a fun high at a festival or show is enough for tens of thousands of young people to take the risk every year.

Even less sophisticated are arguments like Steve Price’s. The shock jock had a go at advocate Matt Noffs during a segment about the trial on The Project last night, yelling about how drugs are illegal (duh) and his kids don’t do drugs (sure, Jan). He was really bothered by the idea that the police knew there were punters walking into that tent with Illegal Drugs and didn’t do anything –because the concept of harm minimisation is apparently either too complex or too humane for him to grasp, and also what are cops even for if not for arresting people Steve Price doesn’t like?

If people like Price had their way the drug testing tent would actually be a hidden conveyor belt straight to jail, and anyone who died from taking a capsule full of some mystery substance deserved it for making bad choices and not being raised by Steve Price.

A pill or bag that’s confirmed to contain what you paid for can still be dangerous, of course – but it’s a hell of a lot safer than something that’s straight-up lethal.

Abstinence-only policies don’t work for sex education, and they don’t work for drug policy. People are going to do it anyway, because humans love fun stuff more than they love not doing fun stuff. People die climbing Everest all the time, but that doesn’t mean we say “No guides or oxygen tanks for you, idiots, you brought this on yourself”.

But the props don’t just go to STA-SAFE and the advocates who fought so hard for this to happen – although of course, huge amounts of credit to them for trying to drag Australia’s backward-ass drugs policy kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Props, also, to the punters who tracked down the testing tent and handed over precious scrapings of their expensive mystery dingers.

Fronting up to have your drugs tested took guts. There wasn’t necessarily adequate legal protection for people walking into that tent, one expert told the Canberra Times.

There was a police presence and security guards outside the tent, according to a separate report by the Canberra Times. One of the festival promoters, who definitely deserve praise for allowing the trial to go ahead, reportedly told the Fairfax journalist to delete a picture of the cops outside the tent.

The official line, though, was a pro-minimisation-friendly agreement that the cops wouldn’t target the tent or the “health precinct” where the testing tent was located.

Every person who walked into that tent to take part in the trial contributed to a positive outcome, and at least two of them may have saved their own lives.

It would have been scary – but it was also responsible, and smart. And whatever your stance on recreational drug use is, people being smarter about it is a good thing.

And that goes double for the people who make the rules.

Pop-up Channel

Follow Us