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Image: FOMO Festival, via Facebook

As festival deaths pile up, experts plead for pill testing

As summer peaks, so does the incidence of music festivals; a rite of passage for many young Australians. Yet increasingly, these frivolous events are tinged with tragedy. Over the weekend, 19 year-old Alex Ross-King died at FOMO Festival – the fifth drug-related festival death in the country in six months.

Just showing my age on this debate but genuine question.
Why do so many people die now? When I was that age people died from heroin but rarely ecstasy.
Is it just more people taking it? People taking greater amounts? Shittier drugs ? I don’t really get why so many are dying? https://t.co/3fTQd3vYTt

— 𝕤𝕒𝕞𝕒𝕟𝕥𝕙𝕒 𝕞𝕒𝕚𝕕𝕖𝕟 (@samanthamaiden) January 13, 2019

Maiden’s hunch is correct – although usage is down, there are more young people dying from methamphetamines than in 1999. In the UK, drug-related festival deaths, usually involving ‘uppers’, are at a record high. As for why, one reason, as Maiden suggested, is that there are more users of a particular drug – MDMA – the active ingredient in ecstasy.

Maiden’s other suppositions, like there being ‘shittier’ drugs, remain unable to be proven, due to a lack of data on the subject. That’s why Ross-King’s family, together with many experts and expert bodies, are calling for research, including by way of piloting pill testing at music festivals.

Despite this and the burgeoning death toll, bureaucrats remain intransigent on the issue. When asked about it following Ross-King’s death, Prime Minister Scott Morrison deferred his answer to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. She doubled down on her opposition to it: “The NSW Government has the same position as the Victorian Government and that is we’re concerned by the unintended consequences of pill testing,” she told the Today show on Monday. “Pill testing could unfortunately give people a false sense of security. What is most lethal is the ecstasy; people believing these drugs are ok when in fact it’s not.”

According to Professor Alison Ritter, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, there is no evidence for Berejiklian’s first assertion. Yet there is proof to the contrary: that pill testing positively impacts consumption choices. She draws this conclusion from various pill testing pilot studies from here and abroad. At a 2016 trial in the UK, for instance, researchers found that a fifth of participants ditched their drugs after they discovered they weren’t as labelled. A majority of this group also chucked other, untested drugs after receiving this result. Further, at a pilot conducted in April last year at Canberra’s ‘Groovin the Moo’ festival, post-pill test, 35 per cent of participants said that they intended to change their intended drug use by either using less of it, using a different drug, or not consuming any drugs at all.

Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethics in Medicine & Society at Monash University, pointed to the other aspect of pill testing: counselling. “Pill testing doesn’t happen in isolation,” he told Campus Review. “It occurs along with another risk-minimisation tool, face-to-face counselling, where there’s an opportunity for people to be given information about variables, and the particular risks they may face.”

Deeming policy-makers views on pill testing ‘rigid’, he compared them to those that were negative toward seat belts, vaccines, random breath testing, and bicycle helmets, prior to their introduction. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the government to be very cautious [about pill testing]. We [the RACP, of which he is a board member] waited for evidence in the form of data and reliable pill testing technologies before weighing in,” he said. Having said that, he thinks the political inaction must now cease. “I think that now’s the time for them to start moving.”

Ritter also used the analogy of seat belts, albeit differently. “The availability of pill testing cannot guarantee that no more deaths will occur, just like the introduction of seatbelts and reduced speed limits has not guaranteed a zero road toll,” she said. “But not introducing measures that in 2019 have a solid evidence base is to treat young people’s lives as somehow less important, or less worthy of care and support.”

In 2016, nearly a third of people aged 20 to 29 reported that they had used drugs illicitly in the past year, with 2.8 per cent noting ‘recent’ use of an amphetamine.

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One comment

  1. The technology isn’t there. We cannot quickly and accurate measure the ENTIRE make-up of the pill (especially without destroying it). Further, who is to know how the composition would affect the user, with their unique genetic make up?
    Only one thing is for certain – the Government will get sued as soon as a precious child overdoses from a tested pill. If someone is willing to pay a lot of money to a complete stranger for a totally unknown pill KNOWING the repercussions and avoiding risk mitigation techniques (staying with friends, trying a small dosage first, not being dehydrated and drunk) then what more could the Government do to protect them?
    Further, there will be negative outcomes when pills are flagged after testing, i.e. on selling, consuming it regardless (see my point about historic flawed decision making above) and violent retribution to the seller.

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