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Author Topic: [AU] NZ drug experts drag Australia for its response to music festival deaths  (Read 572 times)

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NZ drug experts drag Australia for its response to music festival deaths

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Fans watch P Money perform at Auckland City Limits Music Festival.  Image source: Getty Images

Harm minimisation experts in New Zealand have criticised Australia's response to drug deaths at music festivals.

The comments come after the NZ health minister last week confirmed the government would permanently legalise pill-testing, a harm reduction strategy that's seen little government support in Australia.

Pill-testing organisation Know Your Stuff NZ (KYSNZ) managing director Wendy Allison said they looked across the ditch to see how authorities here were trying to keep young people safe at festivals and knew what they definitely wouldn't do.

"We looked at Australia before we started doing this and we went sniffer dogs, strip searches, dead kids we're not doing that," Wendy said.

What's happening in NZ?

Until last year, festival organisers in NZ were operating in a legal grey zone where they could be prosecuted for having pill checkers on site.

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In December their government passed an urgent but temporary law to legalise pill-testing before the summer festival season began.

The decision to make that law permanent was welcomed by Wendy, who said young people were super keen to get their drugs checked.

"We attended 16 festivals this year and we turned down about 24... so there's no way we can cover them all," she said.

At one festival KYSNZ conducted around 400 tests, Wendy said.

How does pill-testing work?

Wendy told Hack it was a pretty straightforward process.

If KYSNZ is at whatever music festival you're attending, you line up outside their tent, wait to be called to a private screening area and hand over a match head-sized portion of whatever drug you want tested.

"We then provide the results to the client and harm reduction information specific to their result and we ask them if they intend to take the substance or not, and give them the opportunity to destroy it," she said.

Click on the image above to take a look inside Groovin the Moo's pill-testing facility

Wendy also clarified her organisation has a good working relationship with the police and the understanding was that at festivals, they would stay well away from the pill-testing service.

"New Zealand police seem to be taking a somewhat different approach from the Australian police, in that they have taken a very hands off approach to our work, they have stood back and let us get on with it," she said.

"They can see that it's preventing harm [and] people who come to see us are less likely to be seeing them later."

What does the research show?

Research by Victoria University showed 68 per cent of surveyed festival-goers who used the KYSNZ pill-testing service changed their behaviour.

Some people threw out the drugs that had been tested, others reduced the amount they took and almost 90 per cent said they better understood the harms of taking drugs after talking to the testing team.

"If it is a dangerous substance and they do still choose to take it, we can advise them things like don't take it with other drugs, avoid alcohol, make sure somebody knows what you're doing, take less of it," Wendy said.

In a statement, NZ health minister Andrew Little also said that testing the drugs had made it easier for medical staff to treat people who have overdosed "because they know what they're dealing with".

Where does Australia stand?

Support for pill-testing at music festivals in Australia has been increasing over the last few years as a response to more young people dying after taking MDMA.

We've trialled drug checking at festivals like Groovin the Moo in Canberra and potentially saved the lives of at least seven people who dumped their pills after finding out they contained deadly chemicals.

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But some state governments have said they'd rather shut down festivals entirely instead of making pill-testing permanent.

Currently ACT is the only place in Australia where pill-testing happens at festivals and at the last election the government there promised to look into a permanent testing site too.

Drug policy expert Dr Monica Barratt from RMIT University said there was no good reason for other state and territory governments to not throw their support behind it.

"I don't think this is a technical hold up, I don't think this is a hold up that relates to capacity, we obviously can do this in Australia we just haven't yet," she said.

"I think it is simply politics."

Pill-testing recommended by coroners

Dr Barratt was an expert witness in a recent inquest into the drug-related deaths of five young guys in Melbourne between July 2016 and January 2017.

They were all aged between 17 and 32.

"These individuals snorted what they believed to be MDMA, or in one case psilocybin," she said.

"My presumption was had they known what was in those capsules they wouldn't have taken them, or they certainly wouldn't have snorted them and they would still be alive today."

The Coroner recommended that the Victorian government should immediately implement a drug checking service.

She also said a warning system should be created where people are alerted if an unusually dangerous drug is on the market.

It follows the NSW coroner recommending pill testing be conducted in NSW in 2019 after an inquest into the drug-related deaths of six young people aged 18 to 23 at music festivals over two summers.

Dr Barratt said as COVID-19 restrictions ease and festivals come back, the risk of serious health incidents from taking dodgy drugs will increase.

"People are going to want to come back and party a bit harder."

She said governments around the country needed to change their approach to avoid further deaths.

"It's not helpful to say, don't take them," she said.

"We don't say the same thing to people about other risky behaviors like driving, getting in an airplane, what we do is to try making safer and that's what we can do here with drug checking."

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I do not condone or support any illegal activities. All information is for theoretical discussion and wonder.
All activities discussed are considered fictional and hypothetical. Information of all discussion has been derived from online research and in the spirit of personal Freedom.


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