Parents of Australian children who have died after taking party drugs at festivals are calling on state governments to respect “the evidence” when it comes to the ongoing debate around pill testing to save lives.
“Please, stop closing your eyes to the evidence and information and help us, help another family. Please,” Jennie Ross-King said in an address to media.
Her 19-year-old daughter, Alex Ross-King, died in January this year after consuming three MDMA capsules at a Sydney festival. She was just one of sixth festival-goers, aged 18 to 23, to die from drug-related deaths at similar music events in the past two summers.
It comes after the NSW coroner released a report on Friday advocating for pill testing at music festivals to reduce harm. The report disputed the effectiveness of strip-searches and sniffer dogs in reducing drug use, and recommended pill testing be allowed to mitigate the risk drug users took potentially lethal drugs.
Coroner Harriet Grahame wrote that there was “significant evidence” that “intensive and punitive drug policing operations” were increasing “drug-related risks and harm”.
Pill testing has been trialled in the ACT and advocates say they can get trials up and running at NSW events within two weeks but NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller remain unflinching in their opposition to the idea.
“I’m gravely concerned about the message that pill testing sends to young people about the consumption of illegal substances,” Cmr Fuller said in a statement on Monday, citing critical flaws in proposals to test illicit pills.
“At present, the technology does not allow for adequate identification of dose levels or small traces of highly toxic substances,” he said. “The testing method, in which only a small portion of a pill is tested, is also an inaccurate reflection of the composition of the entire pill.”
Parents of dead youth want to see change
Following the release of the Coroner’s report, parents and drug reform advocates called for an evidence-based approach to policy, pointing to the recommendations made.
“These are experts in their field who have been doing this for a long time, in excess of 20 years in Australia and longer than that overseas,” Ms Ross-King said.
“So I think it is time that, instead of politicians believing that their opinions are what we should be doing, actually listen to what the experts are saying.”
“Our satisfaction with recommendations released by the NSW coronial inquest into six young deaths at music festivals across (NSW) is exceeded only by our dismay at the punitive mindset of the New South Wales government and police,” Bill Bush, president of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform said in a statement.
Paramedics call for pill testing as deterrent
On Tuesday, paramedics in Victoria joined the chorus of stakeholders calling for pill testing at music festivals to alert Victorian revellers of dangerous drugs in real-time.
The Victorian Ambulance Union says drugs confiscated by police and security at events should be tested by chemists so warnings can be issued by text or social media when substances such as pesticides and industrial solvents are detected.
“We've all heard the mantra drugs are illegal, drugs are illegal, drugs are bad, but people are still taking them so how do we get the message through to them in a way that actually makes them stop and not take the drug?” union secretary Danny Hill told 3AW on Tuesday.
Mr Hill said he expected event organisers would have to pay for the testing, but also argued there was an element of public interest which should encourage government support.
“At these events where we have five or 10 or 15 overdoses, it can tie up that many ambulances over the period of a weekend, it can cause assaults on our members; the ambulance is not available to respond to other patients in the community so there really is a benefit (of publicly) in something like this,” he said.
Like NSW, Victorian leaders oppose pill testing
However Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews maintains this would be interpreted as a green light for people to take potentially fatal drugs.
“Even so-called pure versions of these drugs can kill you and we won't be sending a green light for people to use them,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Police Minister Lisa Neville said police already run an 'early warning' system, letting some communities and users know if they become aware of problematic batches of drugs.
The Victorian opposition doesn't want to see pill testing either.
“Illicit drugs are illegal for a reason because inherently they are unsafe,” Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien told reporters.
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