‘We need to be smarter, not harder in the way we deal with drugs’

Despite a massive drug dog operation at Saturday’s Stereosonic in Sydney, tragedy struck when a 25 year-old woman collapsed and later died from a suspected drug overdose.

The Stereosonic team has issued a statement expressing their deepest condolences to the patron’s friends and family, exhorting their audience to “stay safe and look after each other,” while police said the tragedy proves that “people have to be protected from themselves.”

Police spokesperson Frank Mennilli told Sky News that having more drug dogs and police onsite would “just result in more people being arrested”, before making alarmist claims that taking drugs is “playing Russian roulette with your life” and the same as “opening a bottle of bleach and swallowing it,” and that drinking alcohol when taking drugs “makes the effects ten times worse.”

Activist group Unharm agrees that ramping up the policing at festivals will do nothing to stop people from taking drugs – instead, they want to see a shift in Australia’s drug laws from prosecution towards education and harm reduction.

Last November, after the sad drug-related death of another young woman at Harbourlife, Unharm Director Will Tregoning wrote this article exploring how Australia’s drug laws have failed us, and how we can work together to help prevent such tragedies in the future. It’s a message worth revisiting often – and loudly.

A drug-related death is a tragedy from any angle but it’s the parents that I think about the most. About 3000 Australian parents have had a child die of a drug overdose this year. It’s higher than the road toll. When I hear stories like this one I look at my kids. My gut feels it but my mind can’t even.

Familiar lines from police are hard to listen to without a rising sense of anger – “quite simply, you don’t know what you are getting. Seeking a synthetic high could result in a serious injury or death.” This is true, and yet it’s also breathtakingly dishonest.

‘Tough on drugs’ is a lie – illicit drugs are the consumer product we’re least tough on. There is $7 billion up for grabs in the Australian illicit drug market and it’s all in the shadows. Unlike other consumer markets of this scale, the products have no quality or safety standards. With no regulation to protect consumers, manufacturers make drugs in any way they can and with whatever they can get. Retailers are incentivised to maximize sales. This chaotic, unregulated market massively increases the risks to consumers.

Without a doubt, the only way to completely eliminate the risks of drug use is to not use any drugs. That is advice that should remain at the core of drug policy. But public policy needs to respond to reality. About three million Australians each year use illicit drugs. We’re even the largest per capita consumers of ecstasy in the world. ‘Just say no’ ignores reality and is a failure of moral courage.

After the overdose death at Defqon1 in 2013 we heard from police that “the music festivals themselves aren’t the problem, the problem is adults attending those festivals making poor choices about their lifestyle.” Using drugs might genuinely be a ‘poor choice’, but criminalising people who put their health at risk is out of step with how we deal with other risky behaviours. It also doesn’t work. Between 2007 and 2010 the number of drug consumer arrests steadily increased in NSW and the number of sniffer dog searches doubled. Did illicit use of drugs decline? It went up.

Police are in a difficult position. They have the job of enforcing laws that cannot ever work in the way that they were intended. Many police support drug law reform. But like all of us, their leaders have failed them. We need to do better at managing the harms from illicit drug use and to get there we need to demand more honesty. We must be tough on bullshit.

First of all, too many parents think that their kids would never use illicit drugs. But most Australians in their 20s and 30s have used an illicit drug at some point. There is a huge silence about the reality of drug use, and that silence is one of our big problems. Talk to your parents.

Next up – harm reduction advice to people who use illicit drugs must take into account the fact that a lot of people use drugs because it feels good. The Global Drug Survey’s Highway Code – a guide to safer, more enjoyable drug use – is pioneering in this regard.

If you’re going to use illicit drugs, test them first and check Pill Reports. Reagent kits for DIY testing are widely available and they are the best we’ve got right now in Australia.

What we really need though is laboratory-grade testing that can identify the type and purity of the substance, and any adulterants or by-products of production. Sure, they could be at festivals, but the best location for testing services would be places that are accessible every day. The technology and the protocols for testing are ready for implementation now. With the increase in the number of new psychoactive substances – often much more dangerous than the ‘ecstasy’ they are sold as – this is more important than ever.

The use of drug detection dogs for surveillance of the public must end. This was intended to be a way to crack down on the supply of drugs. It failed. Instead of changing the law, the rhetoric changed. We started to be told that it was about deterring drug use. It’s failed at that as well. At the same time it increases harm by incentivising more risky behaviour like ‘pre-loading’ and panic-driven overdose.

It’s not all bad news though. A lot is already being done at music festivals to effectively manage risk. Reflect on this statement from the Harbourlife organisers in 2014: ”[The festival] has a fully equipped first aid tent with an emergency doctor, two paramedics, three first responder medics, two supervisors and a communications officer. The patron collapsed at 4.37pm and event security called event first aid. A paramedic was there at 4.38, a second at 4.41 and NSW ambulance paramedics were with the patient at 4.45.”

Tragically, in this case it wasn’t enough. But all these fast-response first aid services provide a level of risk management not available where most drug use takes place – places like lounge rooms and back yards. Then there are services like the Red Cross’ Save a mate program, ACON’s Rovers and Mardi Gras Medical that provide peer-to-peer outreach to festival patrons, giving them harm reduction advice and looking out for people in trouble.

We all need to be smarter, not harder, in the way we deal with drugs. For our leaders, this is about moving away from ‘crackdown’ approaches that fail and towards smarter approaches that work. There is just as much responsibility for people who use drugs to be smart about how they manage the risks, and not ‘go hard’.

But let’s not pretend we can deal with this as individuals. Look around yourself next time you’re at a festival. Everyone there is someone you care about, or someone’s child. We have got to get better at managing drug-related harms. Our leaders are failing but they have the power. To make them change, it’s going to take all of us.


Find out more at the Unharm website.