The Focus Should Be on Reducing Deaths: An Interview With Jennie Ross-King

by Paul Gregoire

Last summer’s music festival season was unnecessarily devastating. Five young Australians died in drug-related circumstances either trying to avoid police detection or from taking drugs that they had no way of ascertaining the contents of.

Harm reduction experts have been calling for NSW police to stop its ever-increasing saturation policing of events for years now. Their justification for doing so is that its leading festivalgoers to partake in dangerous drug-taking behaviours.

These include preloading, which is taking a large amount of drugs at once – instead of ingesting them at a slower pace – in order to avoid police detection. Another is panic ingesting, which is when an individual swallows all of their drugs at once on spotting a drug detection dog operation.

Tragically, 19-year-old Alex Ross-King died under such circumstances last January. As the coroner’s report outlines, “she was nervous about being caught by police”, so she took “two capsules at once before entering the venue”. And this was after already having ingested some MDMA prior.

Pill testing saves lives

NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame released her findings on the coronial inquest into the death of six patrons of NSW music festivals on 8 November. She made numerous recommendations, including prohibiting drug dog use at festivals and implementing pill testing.

The same experts that have been calling for an end to drug dog use at festivals have long been advocating for pill testing implementation. This harm reduction intervention allows those who are planning to take drugs to have their contents checked by professionals using laboratory equipment.

Pill testing is no silver bullet. However, many European countries have been using the technique since the early 1990s. And it’s been shown over there, as well as at trials held in Canberra, that it reduces the amount of people who take their drugs after finding out they could prove fatal.

Since two drug deaths occurred at a festival in September last year, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has simply insisted pill testing will not be trialled here. And despite this festival season having claimed its first casualty last weekend, she’s appeared before reporters stating the same thing.

An advocate for change

Jennie Ross-King is Alex’s mother. Despite the devastation she suffered at the beginning of the year, she bravely sat through the coronial inquest, attended a music festival to see how they’re being policed, and she’s spoken to the experts.

Having now been at the forefront of the debate over drug use at festivals for some time now, today, she fully endorses the coroner’s recommendations. And Ms Ross-King is calling on the state premier and NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller to see reason, so as to prevent further loss of life.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ms Ross-King about why she believes police continue using drug dogs despite the obvious harm they cause, how she advocates for a huge expansion on honest drug information being readily available and what she’d say to Gladys Berejiklian given the chance.

Firstly, NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame recently released her findings on the inquiry into deaths at music festivals. Ms Ross-King, overall, what do you think about the findings of the state coroner?

They’re extremely thorough. They’re based on all the evidence that was presented to her, and more. I say more, because she’s had extensive experience in this area. So, she’s drawn on her experiences throughout her career.

The recommendations are extensive, and they’ve been put forward with information from the experts. And there were no surprises.

I sat in the courtroom every day and listened to the evidence. I had access to the transcripts and all the material that was supplied by the experts.

So, when the recommendations came out, there were no surprises whatsoever, because all the evidence was pointing in the same direction.

The tragedy that befell your daughter, Alex, has been directly linked to her concerns over being detected by sniffer dogs. 

Considering the link between preloading on drugs in order to avoid dogs having been well-established by experts, why do you think NSW police persist in using them at festivals?

Because it’s easier. Let’s face it. It’s much easier. From a law enforcement perspective, they see it as a tool that can help identify people who are potentially carrying drugs on them. Given it’s a tool that they have, then they’re going to use it.

I don’t necessarily agree with it. There’s almost a situation where young people at music festivals are being targeted unfairly by police with dogs.

We’ve all heard it, if someone put a dog in the middle of Pitt Street on a busy morning with everybody walking to work, you’d be guaranteed that they’d be all sorts of professionals being picked up.

So, I know why they do it, because it’s easy. Otherwise, it would be police having to use their own initiative to target specific people, based on all those reasons they’re trained to.

But, it’s dangerous, because there’s evidence there from the experts that suggests that the panic ingestion of drugs is something that’s definitely happening.

Alex didn’t panic ingest. She ingested them prior to seeing the dogs. But, she did ingest because she knew the dogs were there.

I do feel for the police commissioner and his role. He’s dedicated his life to law enforcement. So, for him to not see through that and look at harm reduction strategies that don’t involve a zero tolerance, I understand why that’s difficult.

However, I don’t think he and the premier actually realise the harm that they’re doing, because if they did, they would surely stop.

Another key recommendation coming from the coroner is the implementation of pill testing at festivals. What’s your take on this harm reduction intervention?

Pill testing should be the last thing that we need to implement. The reason why I say that is because it’s really the step at the end, where we should have all these other strategies in place.

So, pill testing at that moment in the music festival, should be capturing the people that we weren’t able to get in those first several harm reduction strategies, such as education and providing information.

The problem is that we don’t have any of those other strategies in place. And it’s going to take several years before they can be put into place, with the bureaucratic red tape and the education system, so we can get the information out to people to make sure that they’re not going to do these things, or if they do, how to best care for themselves or their friends.

The reason why the trialling of pill testing has to happen now is because nothing else is in place, because we have had zero tolerance for so long.

“Just say no” is what they said when I went to school. We weren’t told anything. We weren’t told what the effects of drugs were, other than they were bad for you and bad for society.

Prompted by the coroner’s recommendations, 20 heads of departments at St Vincent’s Hospital have written to the NSW premier calling on her to roll out pill testing services.

But, Gladys Berejiklian is adamant that she won’t consider this. And as you’ve just said, she simply puts forth the “just say no” message that Nancy Reagan was promoting back in the 80s.

Given the chance, what would you say to the premier in regard to how she’s approaching this matter?

I’ve read the evidence, and I have listened to the experts under oath. The premier’s insight about harms associated with pill testing are unfounded and uneducated.

In her position as premier, I find this quite alarming. I find her arguments arrogant and dismissive. And her dismissive attitude towards the experts is not becoming of a leader of the state.

I believe her advisers are not giving her the most up-to-date information. And I believe she’s being misled.

Another aspect to this is that the coroner has recommended pulling back on when strip searches are applied at festivals. 

Right now, police are strip searching youths, following drug dog indications, which are notorious for getting it wrong two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.

Do you believe that most parents out there are aware of what’s actually going on in regard to these searches?

I don’t think most parents are fully aware, but they’re becoming a little more aware given what’s been happening with how much media and information is getting out there.

Although, I don’t think a lot of young people would necessarily go home and tell their parents that they’ve been strip searched.

I went and observed one of the music festivals. And I watched over a 35 minute period, at least 20 kids being taken into the back area, where they were being questioned a bit more.

Out of those 20 kids that went in, there would have been at least 19 who came out and went back into the festival, which indicated they had nothing on them, because if you do have something you’re immediately ejected from the festival.

I asked one young girl if she minded sharing the experience that she’d just had. And she said that she’d simply had to take her hat, her shoes and socks off, and she’d been patted down.

So, I don’t know if that’s something that’s happening more, given what’s been happening in the media, or that was just that particular incident.

But, the fact that they’re going to the extreme of a strip search based on an approach with the dogs that are renowned for not being accurate is a bit confronting.

Ms Ross-King we’ve been discussing your attitudes towards these harm reduction approaches and moves away from law enforcement.

Has the tragedy you’ve experienced changed the way that you perceive how the policing and provision of services at festivals should be operating?

I didn’t know how they were operating before this happened. It wasn’t something that I realised I should know about as a parent. And it wasn’t really discussed at home with Alex, because it wasn’t something that came up: policing and law enforcement at festivals.

But, yes, I believe that something has to change. There’s a lot of things that have to change. And a good start is looking at the recommendations from the coroner, because they’re specific to music festivals.

As far as law enforcement is concerned, of course they need to be there. And yes, I believe they have a role to play.

But, I don’t believe it should be a role of fear. It should be a role of community policing, and actually engaging with young people.

It shouldn’t be everybody is guilty until proven innocent.

The police commissioner said that he would defend his officers. And so he should. I would expect nothing less than the police commissioner to defend his officers.

But, what he doesn’t realise is that it’s not his police that he needs to defend, it’s actually the approach and the tactics of policing that need to be changed.

They’re only following orders. They’ve been told how to behave and act. And they’re doing that quite effectively. And unfortunately, it’s not working. It hasn’t worked. And it’s not going to work in the future.

They can’t just keep throwing the same thing at music festivals and think that there’s going to be a different outcome. Because there’s not going to be a different outcome.

It’s going to be the same outcome. And it already has been the same outcome again last weekend.

And lastly, the coroner has come out with recommendations that just a few years ago would have seemed quite radical.

You’ve been at the frontline of this debate over the last year. Do you think we’re at a point where community opinions might finally bring about change in the way authorities are dealing with this issue?

I really hope so. Though nothing is going to happen anytime soon. I realise that. I do understand that change is difficult for some.

But, something will change, and if that means we need to have a change of government, then a change of government may be the case.

People aren’t tolerant of a lack of action. And that’s what I believe the government is currently doing. Nothing is being done.

There have not been any conversations about any of the recommendations, as far as what they’re going to implement, which is upsetting and disturbing. And to be quite honest, it’s disgusting.

We’re dealing with lives. The deputy state coroner said that we need to shift our priorities from reducing drug use to reducing drug deaths.

And once we do that, perhaps we can introduce some other measures back into the mix. But, at the moment, this is a much bigger issue.

And there’s a lot of parents that now make contact with me, saying thank you for trying to make some changes, because they feel they don’t know what to do.

They don’t know how to have that conversation with their children. They don’t know what to say to them, as their kids know more than them. They feel unprepared.

There’s no information out there that they know is 100 percent right that’s being advertised. I know there’s plenty now, but at the time, I wouldn’t have known where to go.

And I’d also like to say that some of the things that were put in place as part of the expert report that came out in September last year, like the laws surrounding supply and so forth, since those were introduced, Callum, Josh and Alex have all passed away. And none of those laws have come into play.

I can’t speak for the other two, but I do know that the young boy, who Alex got her drugs from, will no doubt have a criminal record, but then that’s all that happened.

Now, I don’t want to see anybody because they made such a silly mistake at such a young age go to gaol for 20 years. There’s nothing good that can come from that.

I also think there should have been some level of community service within the area of drug rehabilitation or something like that, but none of that happened.

I’ve looked on the website of several lawyers and there are people getting off for possession all the time, so obviously, there’s gaps in the law somewhere, and it’s not stopping anybody from dying. And that’s the sad part about it.

The premier thinks she has done something, but she hasn’t done anything. She’s actually done nothing to help prevent the loss of life.

Author

Paul Gregoire

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.

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