The final weekend of 2018 saw the death of a 22-year-old at Lost Paradise festival in NSW Glenworth Valley and a potentially related, very scary warning from Falls Festival organisers and medical staff regarding a dangerous orange-coloured pill in circulation.
NSW Labor leader Michael Daley, who took over from Luke Foley in November, fronted media on Monday morning and said that a Labor state government would convene a drug summit if elected in 2019, and strongly disagreed with Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s flat refusal to consider sanctioning pill testing, and the current official policy that if you die from an untested pill it’s your own silly fault.
NSW minister Anthony Roberts on pill testing at music festivals: The government is against this proposal. We appeal to people to realize that if they take an illegal drug, they are risking their lives.
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) December 30, 2018
“I don’t just want to hear from police,” Daley told media this morning. “I want to hear from parents and children, from the clinicians, the ambos, the people who keep these children safe and we will look at all options.”
“If you’re going to hold a drug summit, and you’re going to say that you’ll listen to the experts, you can’t shut one door to them. So pill testing should not be off the table.”
“The Premier wants it off the table. That’s not the way to go.”
That’s right: that’s a politician from a major (non-Greens) party saying something sensible and evidence-based about recreational drug policy. WILD.
Experts estimate that an average of three people a year, most under 30, die from drug-related causes or overdoses at Australian music festivals each year, according to a Fairfax report from September after two people died at the Defqon.1 festival.
But there’s no authoritative database that breaks out those deaths from the other drug-related deaths in Australia each year. This means that they’re lumped in with the deaths of, for example, chronic heroin or ice users, which require very different preventative approaches to a 19-year-old who takes one untested pill at a festival.
The last time a NSW government convened a drug summit was in 1999, and the experts consulted there recommended pill testing as a preventative measure. If that had been implemented and normalised, that’s a rough estimate of nearly 60 lives that could potentially have been saved in the past two decades.
The report from the 1999 summit includes this paragraph:
“To each of the 172 resolutions the government is applying this important test: Are we confident that this will improve the current situation? The reason for applying that test is that we certainly will not risk making matters worse.”
The only way legalising or sanctioning pill testing at music events could make matters worse is if you believe it will increase drug use – if you think two people taking a tested pill and neither one of them dying is “worse” than one person taking one and being seriously harmed.
And the evidence is clear: testing saves lives, and it doesn’t make more people think taking drugs is safe.
And with NSW Labor actually in with a chance to govern after the March election, 2019 really could be the year the government starts listening.