This music festival season has seen more drug-related deaths and hospitalisations in NSW than ever before. And at the same time, the police presence at these events has also been the heaviest in the state’s history. So, something isn’t adding up.
The Berejiklian government continues to take a heavy-handed law enforcement approach to the use of illegal drugs at events, like music festivals. But, it’s damn certain that with the rising death toll this summer, it’s just not working.
Gladys has told us she won’t consider pill testing, because she hasn’t seen any evidence it works. However, at the same time, the premier has blatantly refused to look at the proof that’s readily available.
And meanwhile, it seems that the authorities in this state are hellbent on making young people pay for their illicit drug use with their lives.
Just test the damn pills
Australian harm reduction veteran Dr Alex Wodak has pointed out that pure MDMA is one of the least dangerous drugs. What’s causing the harms at festivals right now is that punters don’t know the contents of the drugs they’re taking, which are bought on the unregulated black market.
Without any quality control, young people are often purchasing illegal ecstasy that either contains toxic substances, or more recently, is of a dosage that’s too high. And despite the premier warning them not to do so, youths are still taking the risk and dropping them.
Pill testing has been available in some European countries since the 1990s. And it continues to be utilised as it’s been proven effective. Indeed, the European Union has actually produced best practice guidelines in relation to this life-saving intervention.
And this technology has officially been used in Australia before. Last April, the ACT government sanctioned a trial at the Groovin the Moo festival. It potentially saved the lives of two festivalgoers after they binned their drugs, which were found to contain a substance that can prove lethal.
In a bold move for a politician to make, NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann came out about her past use of MDMA in an article last week. She decided to talk about her drug use publicly as the government’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs is “costing people their lives”.
In the piece, Ms Faehrmann describes her life in 1990s, when the priority was having a good time, which could sometimes involve risks. And it was also a period prior to NSW police implementing its drug dog program that in itself has led young people to partake in dangerous drug taking practices.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ms Faehrmann about why there needs to be more honestly in the national debate around MDMA and pill testing, what effect premier Berejiklian’s “just say no” approach is having, and the changes she’s seen in the policing of events over recent decades.
Firstly, on 21 January, you came out publicly about your use of MDMA in your 20s and your occasional use of it since that time. This was a rather brave move for a politician. Cate, what was the importance of coming out publicly about your drug use?
The whole national conversation around drugs is a lie, to be honest. The facade around which drugs are safe and which aren’t. The facade around why some drugs are legal and others are illegal. A lot of people are starting to see through this.
The statistics show that within my age group – between 30 and 50 – more than half of us have tried illegal drugs at some point in our lives.
With the five deaths over the summer, and seeing the premier continue to push a “just say no” to drugs message, despite admitting that she has never taken illegal drugs and she’s one of the few people she knows who hasn’t, I thought, this is beyond ridiculous.
If my story can help us have a more honest conversation about illegal drugs, the nature and extent of their use and to be honest, to help remove the stigma associated with illegal drug use, then I’ll do that.
You mentioned in your article that back in your 20s having a good time was a priority that you and your friends shared. Do you think the fact that people are taking ecstasy because they enjoy it is being lost on some of these conservative politicians?
After work on a Friday, millions of us will drink alcohol, some of us will binge drink and a few people will probably be admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol-related injuries.
The same thing can be said for illegal drugs. People know that generally they can relax you. They alter your state sometimes, so you can have a better time with people. And yes, of course, you can get into trouble with them.
But, you can also get into trouble with schedule 8 drugs, such as Endone and Oxycontin, which are heavily regulated, because they’re highly addictive and you don’t just want anybody randomly taking a lot of prescription drugs.
The national conversation last week has moved towards people trying to understand MDMA a bit more, which is good. The hysteria around illegal drugs and MDMA suits the government’s zero-tolerance approach. And it suits the war on drugs agenda.
But, it’s important to challenge that. I want to challenge their message on illegal drugs, because it’s not working and much of it’s based on lies.
You’ve touch on this a little already, but over the long weekend, there were 25 drug-related hospitalisations. And this week, Gladys Berejiklian has continued with her don’t take drugs approach and she’s still refusing to contemplate pill testing.
What do you think about the premier’s continued abstinence stance in the face of the rising deaths and hospitalisations this season?
She’s been asking for evidence. And I know that many stakeholders who have evidence that pill testing works haven’t been able to meet with her. That’s disappointing. Premier Berejiklian is listening to one side and refusing to listen to the other side.
However, if you are uncertain about whether pill testing is going to be of benefit, why not trial it. That’s the whole point. Thousands of people are already taking drugs at festivals, the notion that pill testing will enable more people to take illegal drugs is just ridiculous. And the evidence refutes that.
People are doing it anyway, so let’s let them test their drugs so that they know what they’re taking.
You also took aim at the premier’s statement that “there is no such thing as a safe illegal drug”. Why would you say this doesn’t ring true to many in the community?
Because when you have every second person having taken an illegal drug most of them have done so safely.
The uncomfortable truth that the premier and those who continue to prosecute a war on drug agenda and a zero-tolerance policing approach is that most drug use is undertaken safely. Most drug use doesn’t involve getting into trouble.
I’m getting into trouble for saying that. But, it’s the truth. The facts bear that out. We know that more than 51 percent of drug-related hospital admissions are as a result of alcohol. We know that on a Friday or Saturday night most of the people who get in to trouble do so because of alcohol.
We know the statistics are extraordinary in terms of opioid-related addictions and overdoses compared to MDMA.
We know that if you have 5,000 people at a party with MDMA – that’s if we know it’s MDMA and it’s not these other deadly substances that could be mixed in – those people mostly will be having a good time. There will be no violence. There will be dancing. And it will be very peaceful.
We know that if you get 5,000 people together in a hall and they’re all drinking heaps of alcohol and it’s not regulated, then it will be a terrible mess.
They’re the facts. But, no one wants to talk about them because of the stigma associated. And the fear that you will be eternally labelled as a druggie.
I’m over it. I think the majority of the population is over it. And they’re just wanting some common sense brought into it.
Back in the 90s, when you were clubbing, NSW police weren’t using sniffer dogs at events. What sort of effect do you think the use of drug dogs has had at music festivals and other nightlife venues since they were introduced?
Well, I’ve also been to events like Mardi Gras in this decade and I’ve seen the sniffer dogs. In my 30s, I went to events like Parklife. So, it’s not like I haven’t experienced the atmosphere and seen the difference and the change in policing.
Back then though, I know if there was pill testing, I would have used it.
And with sniffer dogs, we know that festivalgoers take all their drugs at once. We’ve heard that some of the deaths over the last few years at festivals have been a result of people taking two or more caps at a time before they go into the venues.
Sniffer dogs are a huge part of the problem. They’re putting lives at risk.
Over this summer, we’ve probably had more high visibility policing than we’ve ever had. And we’ve had more deaths than we’ve ever had as a result of drugs at festivals. And we don’t know the toxicology reports and the circumstances yet.
So, what we are seeing now is hysteria. Yes, every death is tragic. But, the government is using the media hysteria to support its zero-tolerance approach, but also, to support more resources going into policing.
We’ve heard that policing has increased by almost tenfold for some festivals. It’s putting festivals out of business. And young people are going to these festivals and it’s looking like a police state. But, we are in a police state.
They’re panicking. They’re doing unwise and unsafe things. And as we are hearing, it’s putting people at risk. They seek help later. It drives everything underground.
And one of the reasons I came out last week, and did what I did at significant personal risk, is because we’re naturally curious as humans. Statistics and evidence shows that millions of people will want to experiment and try illegal drugs. Let’s start there, because they’re the facts.
Let’s just make sure we can make everybody safe. And honestly, this rhetoric and actions around zero-tolerance, and what’s happening with the increase in the number of police at festivals, is disgraceful. It’s absolutely part of the problem.
The increased police presence and the increase in sniffer dogs is more than it has ever been. And it’s correlated with an increase in deaths. I don’t think the two are unrelated.
And lastly, Cate, do you see pill testing as an end in itself, or do you think that a legalised and regulated MDMA market might be something to look at?
Pill testing is just one part of an overall drug harm reduction approach. We support the decriminalisation of possession for personal use of all drugs, like the Portugal model.
And we need to look at drugs on a scale of harm – such as harm to yourself and others around you – where that is very low. MDMA is one of those drugs. Again, the hysteria around MDMA at the moment means that those who say that will be hung out to dry.
Dr Alex Wodak has come out and other drug and alcohol experts support that model. There’s a discussion to be had. At the national level, the Australian Greens have taxing and regulating cannabis as a campaign and a policy, and we will be talking about that in the coming months.
In NSW, we have also agreed to look at MDMA as part of that. And explore what that looks like. It’s a big conversation and we have to get all the experts on board. It’s certainly not working now. Prohibition and hard-line policing when it comes to drugs is killing people.
Let’s get real and honest. And look at all the options. It’s decriminalisation, but also, which drugs to regulate the supply of is something that we would support, and we’ll put MDMA into that mix.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.