"If it saves one life, one family from such tragedy, then it’s worth it."
These were the words of my Aunty as we discussed the Sydney lockout laws. She was willing for the nightlife economy and culture to be dismantled and persecuted, an economy and culture I once worked and lived amongst, if it were to save one life.
If pill-testing saved just one life, would it be worth it?
Mr. Stephen Bromhead, I’m writing to you, the Member for Myall Lakes, the region I grew up in across Worimi, Biripi and Gringai nations, in response to the following call out on your website:
Do You Support the Introduction of Pill Testing at Music Festivals in NSW?
The recent deaths of 5 young people after taking drugs at music festivals has prompted calls for organised pill testing at music events across NSW.
My personal views have been formed from working both as a nurse, policeman and solicitor, that we should not encourage the use of illegal drugs.
But I want to hear your views on this controversial issue…
We met before the pandemic in my capacity as General Manager of Grow Your Own Music and Produce Festival in Tuncurry. We discussed the soaring rates of youth mental health issues in the electorate, drug addiction, and the lack of economic and cultural opportunity throughout our otherwise beautiful region. Although I’m no longer representing the festival, I still appreciate your support for the event, and hope I can speak to the issue with some demonstrable experience.
I also ran at #4 in the winning independent group for MidCoast Council, again in your electorate. During the campaign, I spoke with many voters who reported issues with addiction, mental health and harmful drug use, whether themselves or family members. It is an old problem that needs new solutions, fast.
My biggest fear when running an event is the possibility of a drug-related death. We have zero control. Even the biggest police presence at a festival gate will still result in countless admitted attendees being off their face. Punters literally laugh at the efforts, and the waste of it all, which does nothing to build trust with law enforcement. I can’t laugh, though. I’m honestly too saddened by it all.
I imagine we have similar goals:
- Reduce mental health issues, suicide and harmful use of alcohol and other drugs
- Restrict access to alcohol and other drugs for minors
- Create better efficiencies in public spending across policing, health care, the justice system, and the broader economy.
- Support the wellbeing of those in our police forces and healthcare industries
- Reduce intergenerational trauma
- Improve broken relationships between police and communities
The way that you seem to support – the way in which we’ve dealt with drug use since the early 1900s – has evidently not worked. If it did work, we would have seen better results. As you say, you’ve seen the continued impacts across your multiple professions. Abstinence is evidently not a reasonable option either, given the adventurous complexities of human nature, and the understandable lack of trust in authority and traditional institutions.
The Prohibition Paradox
I understand your hesitation. To approve pill-testing is to admit that one of the most dangerous parts of prohibited substances is actually a result of their prohibition. You don’t know the drug potency, nor any potential impurities, whether sugar or fentanyl.
People cooked up moonshine in their bathtubs during alcohol prohibition in 1920s America, which directly financed bootlegging and organised crime, and left consumers with no idea of what they were actually taking. The public purse lost tax revenue and policing expenses. Now, we know exactly what we’re getting, it’s taxed, and various laws keep the balance, with strong education campaigns and health services alongside. There is still harm, but we mitigate it.
One of the key benefits of pill-testing is education. While you wait a short period for the test results, a staff member can answer your questions and provide information around drug use. They will never say the substance is safe, a common misconception. Harm reduction methods, similar to those already taught in alcohol education, are openly and compassionately provided. As festival operators, we’re already required by your state government to host harm reduction partners onsite who provide drug education to punters, alongside first aid and a chill-out zone.
Anna Woods died from lack of oxygen to the brain due to water intoxication secondary to ingestion of MDMA in 1995. This was the first mainstream case around MDMA use. She was 15. She had no education around the effects of the drug, and so she couldn’t regulate her water intake. There were potential delays in getting help, too: young people often fear persecution, shame, or arrest if they try to get help for themselves or their friends, due to prohibition and the dominant narrative against drug use.
“Approving Drug Use”
A key argument against pill testing, as you’ve said on your website, is that it may signify the government approving in principle the consumption of illegal drugs. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous, harmful and addictive drugs known to mankind, causing issues in people’s physiology as well as behaviour and negatively-reinforced coping mechanisms. We sell liquor at festivals. I can buy it almost anywhere. We grew up around it, at BBQs, family gatherings, and on the TV, seeing politicians and prime ministers sink schooners amid the applause of the pub crowd. The message is clear – the highest representative of the people is just like the people, like a family man. He drinks. He sinks piss. We are conditioned for intoxication. But again, the alcohol percentage is written on the label. Consumers know what’s in it. That’s what pill-testing is trying to address: knowledge.
Ignoring Expert Advice
The government decides what is illegal and legal, forever changing. It’s a politician’s job to change bad laws as new evidence comes to light. I read much of the coroner’s report when it first came out. Your government ignored key findings of your own report, the number one of which was to instate pill-testing.
Another was to decriminalise personal possession of illicit substances, and for the police to cease personal possession arrests. Another recommendation was to remove the use of drug detection dogs. Respectfully, why did your government ignore the expert findings it commissioned? In answering your question, are we shouting into the void, just like Magistrate Harriet Grahame, Deputy State Coroner, and the myriad experts cited?
The report findings state that all 5 deaths were due to an unknown quantity of MDMA toxicity. Knowing the amount of MDMA in their pill could have saved them. Anna Woods overdosed on water triggered by a pill. Education and shame-free support could have saved her.
If you continue to disregard the scientific approach with drug policy (and climate policy, for that matter), it not only undermines our relationships with law enforcement, it undermines trust in the entire political system. A current consequence is the broad distrust of government communications around managing covid.
I’ll briefly reference a direct example of state-supported illicit drug use; we have three medically supervised injecting centres in Australia, including Kings Cross, established in May 2001. The clinics provide clean needles, education, medical treatment, rehabilitation care, and compassionate assistance, supervising injections of heroin and other opioids, cocaine, meth/amphetamines and benzodiazepines. The evidence again points towards successes in harm reduction and saving lives.
Of course, again, abstinence is the safest bet. But this is simply not the reality of human nature. We are curious creatures wanting to explore the possibilities of our minds and our lives. We take risks. We suffer in the modern world, with little we can rely on anymore. We ignore our parents and our governments and our teachers whenever their claims contradict reality. This disconnect is ever increasing. Any teenager can discover online that cannabis, legal and enjoyed throughout much of North America, has never killed anyone, while alcohol kills thousands of Australians every year. Legal cannabis dispensaries were even deemed essential services and therefore exempt from covid-19 restrictions throughout the US and Canada, along with access to medicine and groceries. We need to rebuild trust and address the disconnect.
If you’re worried about normalising drug use, please know it is normalised – just more stigmatised and dangerous than it needs to be. We need to help people, not punish them. Whether alcohol or MDMA, cocaine or pharmaceuticals, we need compassion and evidence, not puritanism or politicking. Drug harms here are increasing, while international examples of decriminalisation already demonstrate successes and key lessons. Pill testing is no doubt a step towards decriminalisation. But this is the solution, not the concern.
You’re more than welcome to provide your feedback on this submission. In line with your question, I didn’t touch on police strip search operations against teenagers and young adults, though it is closely related. Always happy to discuss further. Finally, thank you for inviting responses on such an important, emotional and controversial topic.
“If it saves one life, one family from such tragedy, then it’s worth it.”