On the weekend, 19-year-old Callum Brosnan died after what is suspected to be an adverse reaction to drugs while attending the Knockout Games of Destiny rave in Sydney.
In September two people died at the Defqon.1 event, also in Sydney. And we’re only at the beginning of the festival season.
Now, there are a couple of ways to address this so that it doesn’t happen again.
One is to go the law enforcement route with the hopeful end point of getting rid of recreational drugs altogether – a policy which has been adopted by Australia and much of the rest of the world for 50-plus years, and which has shown zero sign of working.
The other is harm minimisation, where the “drugs are bad and dangerous” message is leavened with “…but if you’re going to take them, they should be taken as safely as possible”.
And at festivals, that includes pill testing.
Case in point: at the Groovin’ The Moo event in Canberra earlier this year there was a pilot pill testing project. And they found two pills with potentially deadly chemicals in ’em, which the people holding them did not therefore take.
That’s two potential deaths that didn’t happen. Two funerals which didn’t happen. Two families not torn apart. Two communities not in mourning. Two young people that went to a music festival, had a great time, then went home and got on with their lives.
The NSW government, however, see things differently.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian insisted that adopting a harm minimisation approach would give people a “green light to take substances”.
Except, as we know, people aren’t waiting for a green light from their government in order to take drugs. Case in point: all of the cases, ever.
Her message was slightly finessed with Today, telling them that drug testing isn’t useful because… um, some people are immune to poison, or something?
“If we thought it would save a single life, of course we would go down that path,” she confusingly claimed. “Unfortunately, what pill testing doesn’t do is really take into account people’s different physical attributes. What is safe for one person isn’t safe for another.”
"You don’t need to take illegal drugs to have fun," is the message from @GladysB following the death of a 19-year-old man of a suspected drug overdose at a Sydney music festival. It's prompted calls for upcoming summer festivals to be shut down. Thoughts? #9Today pic.twitter.com/KViuCEmExM
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) December 9, 2018
“We brought in some pretty substantial changes, including increase penalties… for those supplying those illegal drugs,” she insisted. “The strongest thing we can do is to send a message to young people: please don’t take any illegal substance.”
Sorry, Gladys, that’s the strongest thing you can do? Say “nah, don’t”?
The Just Say No campaign was invented in 1982 and hasn’t seemingly eliminated drug use in the 36 years since, but the NSW government is banking on it finally getting results any old tick of the clock?
Honest to god, the second you say “you don’t need drugs to have a good time” you’ve lost the respect of any young person watching, Grandma. Because what they hear is “we don’t care about your opinions”. And they’re not wrong.
And this is made all the more clear because the response from the government appears to be to consider shutting down festivals – which the Premier announced plans to do with Defqon.1 – rather than address the actual issue.
Then again, Berejiklian was also in the state government that responded to street violence with lockouts which did less-than-stellar things for Sydney’s CBD entertainment precincts.
And there’s an argument that young people, excited and inexperienced and not great at assessing risk, shouldn’t face a death sentence for doing a far from unusual or unpredictable thing because they crave a moment of feeling good. Which is why people take recreational drugs.
We’re at a point now where we know what doesn’t save lives – what we’re doing – and what does save lives. Pill testing is in category B.
To not do it now, knowing what we know, is to say that political rhetoric is more important than the actual lives of young people.