New study finds dozens of festival deaths ‘potentially preventable’

January 24, 2024
pill testing can save lives
A new report found that pill testing could have prevented drug-related deaths. Image:@kiattisaklamchan/Canva

New research into drug-related deaths at music festivals found that 64 people died across the country from July 2000 until the end of 2019.

The Drug-Related Deaths at Australian Music Festivals report was released after a mass overdose at Naarm/Melbourne’s Hardmission Festival on January 6, renewing calls for pill testing to be made legal in Victoria and New South Wales.

After promising reforms, New South Wales Premier Chris Minns has spent the last six months reneging on his drug law reform election promises, including to hold a drug summit. He has ruled out pill testing.

The new study “aimed to determine the frequency of deaths involving alcohol and other drugs at music festivals in Australia and to identify potential risk factors that may inform future harm reduction strategies”.

The five researchers found that the drug-related deaths were “potentially preventable” if harm reduction interventions, such as drug-checking services, had been available. The majority of festival deaths were attributable to MDMA toxicity.

Partying blind

The report outlined that drug use among festival-goers is “disproportionately high compared with the general population”. It said that drug-related harms at such events are “not uncommon”.

Polysubstance use — the use of a number of psychoactive substances at the same time — tends to be a factor in the majority of drug-related incidents at events, the report said. The substances most likely to be involved in a drug harm incident are overwhelmingly alcohol, followed by MDMA.

Novel psychoactive substances (NPS), “synthetic molecules”, designed to reproduce the effects of prohibited traditional drugs, are another factor, and can often be more harmful, the report said.

There was a widely reported multiple overdose event at Melbourne’s Chapel Street nightclub precinct in January 2017: Three people died and 20 were hospitalised due to a toxic batch of MDMA or ecstacy caps, which turned out to contain the NPS NBOMe, which has strong hallucinogenic properties.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Early Warning Advisory, that monitors the emergence of NPS, identified 1230 novel psychoactive substances between June 2013 and November 2023 — a new drug roughly every week.

“Drug checking, or pill testing, allows the general public to submit drugs for toxicological analysis indicating the contents, dose, and purity of pills and powders, which may reveal potentially dangerous substances, promoting drug disposal and safer drug use,” the report said.

Harm reduction experts have pointed out that drug checking results in reduced drug use, as those who utilise such services and are informed that the drugs in possession could potentially be harmful, usually dispose of them.

Preventable deaths

Of the 64 drug-related deaths since July 2000, 74% were men of a median age of 23. Deaths are also more likely in inner city locations.

On average, three people died in drug-related circumstances each year. The majority happen in NSW, followed by Victoria: neither state allows pill testing.

Queensland authorised drug checking services last February but they are yet to begin.

Instead, governments employ police and private security services to crack down on drug use. 

“Evidence supporting the use of specific law enforcement approaches at concerts and festivals is limited, with recent studies questioning their potential effectiveness in reducing purchase, supply, use or harm related to drugs,” the report said.

Drug detection dogs have been widely used at music festivals over the last two decades, despite multiple studies suggesting their presence increases drug-death risks, the report said.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge sourced multiple sets of police statistics showing that searches resulting from a dog indication leads to nothing being found two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.

He obtained data revealing that dogs are increasingly being accompanied by strip searches.

When festival-goers are confronted by police and dogs it can lead to dangerous drug-taking behaviour, such as panicking and swallowing the drugs at once, taking an excessive amount prior to arriving at an event or concealing substances in body cavities.

Dispelling the myths

“Countries such as the Netherlands have used drug checking for over three decades to understand the dynamic recreational drug market, providing toxicosurveillance data to the European Union Early Warning System, as part of the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS),” the report said.

Australia has one drug checking service — the CANTest facility in the ACT. 

The report noted that “critics have questioned the analytical limitations of drug checking and its role in condoning drug use or providing patrons with a false sense of security over the contents of their drugs”.

Those critics can be found among the ranks of NSW Labor and the Coalition.

While the trial of pill testing at the CANTest facility has now been extended due to its success, NSW MPs prefer to bury their heads in the sand.

Report co-author Dr David Caldicott told Sydney Criminal Lawyers at the time of CANTest’s unveiling that “the service does not act as a ‘honey-pot’, as often misrepresented, and, in fact, it often results in change of behaviour, in a healthy way, regarding drug use”.

“The average MDMA concentration among these deaths was above a range usually associated with toxicity, highlighting an opportunity for the prevention of harm,” the report set out. Services also serve as a point of contact for medical professionals and people who use drugs.

Drug-checking services can be a point of contact for medical professionals and people who use drugs. Festival-goers can discuss drug use with staff, counsellors are available for those who want them and bins are on hand for those who decide not to take the risk. 

“Unlike many existing toxicosurveillance and harm reduction strategies, drug checking enables the detection of dangerous products before they are consumed, deterring use and preventing harm,” the report concluded.

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this article was first published.]

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