RLC in the Media: A bitter pill: why the future of festivals relies on pill testing

With the festival season upon us, so too is the debate over pill testing.

David Smeidt reports for GQ Magazine

Summer means many things in Australia. Interminable cricket coverage, heat that makes you sweat in crevices you never knew you had and, of course, festival season.

According to a report by Live Performance Australia, both contemporary music festival revenue and attendance grew by over 26 per cent in the 2016-2017 period.

As ingrained as these gatherings are in the cultural landscape are news articles about the attendees who never made it home, like 18-year-old Hoang Nathan Tran, 21-year-old Diana Nguyen, 23-year-old Joseph Nguyen Nhu Binh Pham, 19-year-old Callum Brosnan, 22-year-old Joshua Tam and 19-year-old Alexandra Ross King. All died recently as a result of taking MDMA, or ecstacy. Five of the six also had other drugs in their system.

This spate of deaths from late 2018 to 2019 resulted in a NSW Coroner’s Report which was released in November and included a number of recommendations, including on-site pill testing.

The challenge for those in favour of pill testing lies in convincing authorities that just saying no is not a sufficient response to the realty of illegal drugs.

“The barrier right now is a relatively small group of reactionary politicians highly committed to the ‘just say no’ message as a way of demonstrating a particular version of toughness which they find plays well to minority groups that they focus on in their constituency,” said Will Tregoning from unharm.org, a not-for-profit focused on preventing drug addiction.

That ‘toughness’ has also been kicked up a notch with the policing of drugs at festivals via sniffer dogs. It’s an approach that was marked out for criticism by NSW Deputy Coroner Harriet Grahame in her report where she recommended a ban on the use of drug dogs entirely.

Of even more concern is the use of strip searches for drug detection. Across the two days of 2018’s Splendour in the Grass festival, for example, a NSW senior constable strip searched 19 patrons. During an investigation by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, the officer agreed that the searches were not lawful and revealed that only ten per cent of them – one of which was on a 16-year-old girl – yielded illegal drugs.

But it seems the police are not backing down. Or at least the NSW Minister for Police isn’t. Asked to respond to data sourced by the Redfern Legal Centre – which found that 122 underage girls had been strip searched in the state since 2016 – David Elliott said, “I’ve got young children and if I thought the police felt they were atrisk of doing something wrong, I’d want them strip searched.”

Read the full article here (GQ Magazine, 15 January 2020)