It’s a story that we’ve heard a little too frequently recently. A young person dies after taking a deadly dose of drugs at a music festival. There is heartfelt outpouring of support and grief for yet another life lost too soon. Public health organisations, festival organisers and family members call for the introduction of pill testing at music festivals. A government official reaffirms their zero-tolerance stance in the so-called “war” against drugs, meaning that measures such as pill testing are out of the question. The tragic cycle continues.

In the past four months, five young people have died drug-related deaths at music festivals in New South Wales alone, a number that has incited the NSW Coroner’s court to hold a public hearing next week. Amid increasing frustration and calls for the introduction of pill testing, NSW police have instead launched their ‘dob in a dealer’ campaign – clear evidence of the stance that the state’s leadership is currently taking on this issue.

Here is a fact that is becoming hard to deny: People are going to take drugs at music festivals. Triple J’s 2018 Census for Young People revealed that 55% of its 11,000 respondents had taken drugs into a music festival. Let’s face it. More tragedy will ensue unless more effective strategies are implemented as soon as possible – on average, three young people in Australia die from drug overdoses at music festivals every year.  And according to a survey conducted by researchers from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, and the Burnet Institute, police-enforced approaches like sniffer dogs do very little to deter people from bringing drugs into festivals. Worryingly, 10% of respondents who had drugs with them indicated that they had consumed their stash when they saw a detection dog – this can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Discussion surrounding pill testing in Australia has become divisive and hyper politicised in recent weeks, especially in NSW. Premier Gladys Berejiklian remains firmly opposed to such a policy, stating that there is no proof of its effectiveness, and that it would instead gave drug users “a false sense of security”. Strong supporters for the measure claim that all the evidence is pointing to the opposite, stating that pill testing allows users to know what they’re actually taking and to engage with health practitioners about their drug use in an informal setting. A drug testing trial run at a festival in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom saw a 95% reduction in drug-related hospitalisations. If we look to our own shores, the ACT Government ran Australia’s first-ever pill testing trial at Canberra’s 2018 Groovin’ the Moo festival, leading to 42% of the participants indicating that they subsequently wanted to change their drug consumption behaviour. Pill testing isn’t being lauded as the end-all solution to addressing the wider issue of drug culture, something that is woven into the fabric of our society, but its potential to save lives is difficult to ignore.

This debacle is a consequence of the constant battle between advocates for zero tolerance and harm minimisation approaches pertaining to drug policy in Australia. Interestingly, Australia’s National Drug Strategy already leans heavily towards harm minimisation – the existence of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross and nationwide needle and syringe programs show that pill testing would not be a novel type of intervention when it comes to reducing drug-related deaths across the country. It seems, however, that many politicians in NSW and Victoria continue to treat this as a law enforcement issue, rather than a public health one. It is a stubborn stance that is potentially putting many more young lives at risk.

Regardless of which side of the pill testing debate you are on, I think that we can agree that drug policy in Australia needs a serious shake up. Now is a better time than ever to implement life-saving changes. And while it seems that for some, the jury is still out on whether pill testing could be a solution to an issue that will likely persist for years to come, we should not forget the tragic loss of life that has time and time again thrown this into the spotlight. Drug overdoses at music festivals are killing young people right now. Politicians and community leaders need to exit their ideological fortresses and enter a more productive space allowing for real dialogue and compromise, before more lives are tragically cut short.

Words by Davina Daudu