Pill testing urged after Australia’s summer of music festival deaths
Matthias Browning

Matthias Browning

It’s been a summer to forget for Australia’s music festival organizers – not to mention the parents of teens across the country – after a summer of drug overdoses and deaths.

Weekend after weekend, Australians woke up to news of more drug deaths, prompting a debate as to whether it is time for authorities to bite the bullet and allow festival attendees to have their drugs tested prior to consumption.

On the side of the debate, of course, are those that believe that drugs are illegal, drugs kill, and rather than pill testing, there should be zero tolerance for drug taking.

The government has so far resisted calls for pill testing, with the premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, instead urging young people not to take drugs.

Drug Free Australia, a group committed to promoting the dangers of illicit drug use, wrote recently that, “We are very concerned about the national pill testing push within Australia and New Zealand which has chiefly been led here by members of an organization, Harm Reduction Australia.

“Our concerns have pivoted on the fact that MDMA, which is a most sought-after substance at music festivals, has been the substance responsible for almost all deaths within Australia, rather than impurities in party pills or other illicit drugs in the pill which are unknown to the user.

“In Australia we have previously made our view known to Australian politicians, a view which has been backed by strong evidence from the medical literature, and this has now led to many parliamentarians here no longer considering pill testing as an option. In our communications we had asserted that MDMA is the sole drug responsible for many of the deaths, but has also contributed via polydrug use to many others.

“We have cited the only Australian study on ecstasy-related deaths. This studied 82 deaths over a five-year period (2001-2005) where MDMA was the sole drug responsible for 23% of the deaths, with another 59% due to MDMA taken in combination with other licit and illicit drugs, totaling 82% of the 82 deaths. Coroners’ reports in more recent years, as reported in the media, concur. Of the five festival deaths in NSW this summer, ecstasy has been implicated as the cause in all five, according to Professor Andrew Dawson, as reported recently by the Daily Telegraph.

“We have also alerted our politicians to the fact that most MDMA deaths are not overdoses. As DanceSafe, an American harm reduction group has persuasively outlined:

“Overdosing means taking a higher than appropriate dose of a medicine or a drug. In other words, it simply means taking too much or taking a “dose” that is “over” the proper therapeutic or recreational amount. The association of the word “overdose” with “drug-related death” is primarily reflective of heroin and opiate-related deaths, where the majority of fatalities may, in fact, result of overdosing. However, MDMA-related deaths are rarely the result of an overdose, and calling them overdoses is dangerous and negligent. It sends the message that “you will be okay as long as you don’t take too much,” which is simply not true. In the vast majority of cases of MDMA-related deaths, where no other drugs were found in the person’s bloodstream, the deceased had taken a dose within the normal range for appropriate therapeutic or recreational use.

“Even the USA’s Drug Policy Alliance, with whom all Australian and New Zealand pill testing advocates are ideologically aligned, asserts the same[iv], stating that most deaths are not overdoses.”

Tony Wood, a father who lost his daughter Anna to a drug overdose at a music festival in 1995, commented, “I would do anything to save the precious lives of young people and if I thought pill testing at festivals would prevent deaths, I would support it. But they have been testing pills in Europe for a long time.

“In 2004 (my wife) Angela and I were invited to take Anna’s Story to France and travelled all over that country doing school talks and speaking to the media. The subject of pill testing came up time and again, and the message came through loud and clear, it does not work. Kids were still dying at dance parties.

“Testing pills will not give us the critical information about how your body and your brain will be affected by the chemicals. The effect will be different because we are all unique. We can compare it to chemotherapy – some people respond well to chemo and go on to live for years. For others, including my beautiful wife, Angela, this wasn’t the case and for them chemotherapy doesn’t work.

“This is how drugs are idiosyncratic – what works for one person may not work for another. We are all unique. Sadly there is not a test can tell you if you will be alive after taking it.”

Drugs kill, whether they are tested for or not. Ecstasy, the drug of choice at music festivals, is not safe in any amount. At the time of this article being published, no decision has been made to allow pill testing.

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