Predicted Drug Deaths Begin, as Minns Continues Coalition’s Harm Maximisation Policy  

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NSW Government and drugs

Last Friday, something ominous was in the air in NSW. The October long weekend was kicking in, at the beginning of a predicted long, hot climate-driven summer, and with pandemic restrictions far in the past, it was looking likely the biggest festival season since the summer of 2018/19 was upon us.

That summer began with two drug-related deaths at the September Defqon.1 festival. And by its end, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had repeatedly denied calls for life-saving pill testing, enacted retrograde laws, and as three more young people died, she attempted to shut down the entire festival industry.

At the Listen Out festival last Saturday, Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann warned more deaths were imminent, as she further noted police statistics that reveal of the 94,000 searches carried out by NSW police due to a sniffer dog indication since 2013, 71,000, or 75 percent, turned up nothing.

Festivalgoers are greeted at events by walls of police accompanied by drug dogs. And it was found that at least one of the 2018/19 deaths was due to an attempt to avoid detection for being in possession of a prohibited drug. This was at the same time questions were also being raised about the huge spike in accompanying strip searches.

And just like clockwork, by the end of last weekend, two young men had died in drug-related circumstances at the Knockout festival, one man has since been charged with a regressive drug law and a woman had been illegally and aggressively strip searched by NSW police at the same event.

NSW Greens drug law reform spokesperson Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens drug law reform spokesperson Cate Faehrmann

Death toll rising

The Minns government ran on a platform that promised serious consideration of progressive drug law reform via a summit. But early last month, the Labor premier began running with the approach of his Liberal predecessors, as he ruled out decriminalisation and pushed back the meeting by years.

Following this backflip, drug reform group Unharm held a press conference, extolling the benefits of pill testing and calling upon Minns to trial the technique that sees the content of drugs tested for toxicity, just like the drug checking service that’s been operating legally in Canberra for over a year.

Unharm’s message was clear, roll out pill testing prior to preventable deaths. But just like a Liberal leader, Minns refused. And then, three weeks later two men in their twenties died at a western Sydney festival, and the resulting blood on the premier’s hands is going to be hard to wash off.

Of course, Minns didn’t force the drugs on them. Neither did the dealer. These men were going to procure their drugs regardless. The threats of drug dogs didn’t bother them. But if there had been a pill testing facility, they might have used it and given the results, refrained from taking a lethal dose.

Instead, NSW authorities have applied a law that Berejiklian enacted in response to the Defqon.1 deaths. And a 23-year-old dealer has been charged with drug supply causing death, contrary to section 25C of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). And the young man is now facing up to 20 years inside.

But this law doesn’t save lives. Urban Survivors Union executive director Louise Vincent told SCL in 2018, that in North Carolina where this law has been in operation for years, rather than saving lives by criminalising the dealer to such a severe extent, two lives are now lost instead of one.

Hopelessly flawed dogs

Faehrmann was at Sydney’s Listen Out to warn festivalgoers and the press of the imminent dangers that were awaiting those getting ready to party then and into the coming months with no method available to reduce the harms but rather tough law and order tactics that contribute to lives lost.

Just hours before two men were to overdose across town, Faehrmann explained that NSW police statistics she’d obtained via freedom of information reveal that of the 94,000-odd searches applied by NSW police over the last decade after a dog indication, 75 percent of these were false positives.

“The problem with having such a low rate of accuracy with drug dogs at music festivals is that you’re effectively traumatising and criminalising people who have done absolutely nothing wrong,” Faehrmann told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

The Greens drug law reform spokesperson added that she’d been contacted by a woman who was strip searched at the Knockout event, in a manner that clearly breached police protocols, as she was forced to squat and cough whilst naked, and when nothing was found, her ticket was still cancelled.

“If this is how people are treated for not breaking the law, then it’s hard to believe that this is all being done in the name of harm reduction,” Faehrmann further made clear.

Sexual assault by the state

A 2019 Redfern Legal Centre-commissioned UNSW report into NSW police strip searches found that since 2006, the instances of this invasive practice being used has increased twentyfold. And on numerous occasions poorly trained officers were breaching the protocols set out in the legislation.

“We know from the multiple inquiries undertaken by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission that many of the police’s own protocols aren’t being followed by officers when they demand and undertake strip searches of people,” Faehrmann pointed out.

The rolling revelations around the misuse of strip searches published by the LECC commencing in 2019, included an officer placing his hand inside a 15-year-old boy’s underwear and a 16-year-old girl being asked to remove her pantyliner to check underneath it.

The festivalgoer who approached Faehrmann has since described to that NSW police officers allegedly broached a smorgasbord of protocols when searching her, including the non-legislated squat and cough order, as well as the placing hands on her naked body.

The use of strip searches by the police has been deemed akin to sexual assault by the state, as having two armed strangers ordering an individual to strip off in front of them can retraumatise past survivors of such assaults, or simply traumatise the victim of the current procedure.

Part 4 division 4 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) contains strip search protocols stipulating that such a search must only be conducted when the “seriousness and urgency” of the situation require it and no touching of the body or search of cavities can take place.

“Some of these requirements are literally called ‘preservation of privacy and dignity’ requirements,” Faehrmann said pointing to section 32 of the LEPRA.

“While only a court can officially say whether police are breaking the law when conducting strip searches, that’s certainly what it looks like from my perspective.”

The summer of loss

Minns and health minister Ryan Park both told the press this week that pill testing is not a “silver bullet”, which was a favoured expression of the Berejiklian government. And it’s not so surprising the premier is reusing it, as he’s simply repeating well-developed techniques to avoid drug reform.

But Minns has hinted that he may stray from the Berejiklian textbook as he’s further told the press he’s not completely ruling out pill testing, and instead, he’s going to watch what happens in the ACT and Queensland, which is also set to start trialling the intervention.

“People who support harm reduction measures, like pill testing, do so because they listen to the evidence about what’s needed to save lives,” Faehrmann underscored. “Making sure people are as informed as possible about what they’re intending to consume is part of that.”

Drug prohibition has been in place for over a century, yet illicit drug use hasn’t stopped, rather it’s increased and gotten more dangerous. And simply watching the results of what’s happening with pill testing in a positive manner in the ACT, isn’t going to stop drug-related deaths in NSW.

The evidence has long been in. Pill testing has been saving lives in Europe since the mid-1990s. And if the premier observes for too long, he’s going to have to scrub pretty hard to ensure that those blossoming red stains don’t permanently mark his hands.

“The ACT trial of pill testing showed that one in five people who had their drug tested decided to throw out their pills after finding out what was in them,” stressed Faehrmann, as she gave clear reason as to why the premier’s watching game appears to be yet another stalling technique.

“This is why we’re pushing for urgent implementation of a pilot here in NSW, so people on both sides of the argument can see the results for themselves,” the Greens member added in conclusion.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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