The case for pill testing at music festivals



Everyone is familiar with the dictate 'Just Say No'. The problem is that more and more people are saying yes. Specifically to illegal drugs.

Deadly pill hidden among 'happy' pills. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonAs tickets go on sale for this year's round of music festivals — Falls, Defqon, Bluefest, Lost Paradise, to name a few — organisers still have no means to counteract unsafe drug use. Recent years have seen an increase in drug related injuries and fatalities at festivals. The debate as to how to counteract this worrying trend is ongoing, and tricky to navigate due its subjective nature.

So why are music festivals used so often to exemplify the need for a change in drugs policies? Aside from the number of fatalities, drug use at festivals could be categorised as particularly harmful just by virtue of the situation.

With little access to traditional medical facilities, huge opportunity for undetected mishap among thousands of patrons, plus the general hedonistic atmosphere of a festival, the microcosm of the festival becomes a potentially dangerous place.

The current zero tolerance stance towards drugs in New South Wales is a double-edged sword, and one that is based on outdated views. Absolute denial of something perceived as harmful (physically and often socially) is laudable, but it also prevents any sort of admission of the reality.

In the 1960s and 70s it was commonly believed that the less people knew about something, the less likely they were to abuse it. This has not proved to be the case. State research from 15 years ago describes the futility of 'the Utopian desire to 'drug proof' young people ... to keep young people safer in a world where drug use is a fact of life'. In short, ignorance of an issue does not make it go away.

This is the rock and hard place between which promoters and festival organisers are caught. On the one hand all evidence points to the fact that drug use undoubtedly occurs at festivals.

On the other they are powerless to put in place any sort of precautional or safety measures — because that would be an open admission of what we already know; that illegal substances will certainly be present. Which would most likely result in denial of permits and cancellation.


"Ignorance as to the substance you are consuming can lead to overdosing, or unpleasant reactions to differing 'highs'. There is also the worst case scenario that your pills maybe be genuine poison."


Stereosonic organiser, Richie McNeil, recently described instances of how festivals' hands are tied by current legal guidelines. 'I think festivals should have amnesty bins. But the police say they can't, because if people put stuff in the bins, they have to arrest them for possession. That's just the way the law is written. The fact we don't implement such a simple solution is mind boggling ... '

Similarly, calls for pill testing at festivals as another simple solution are numerous, and divisive. NSW premier Mike Baird remains stubbornly adamant that this cannot be sanctioned. Taking the position that it's abstinence or death, his advice is 'don't do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don't take the pills and you'll be fine.'

If the constant demonisation of illegal drugs had ever decreased consumption, then Baird's stance might be permissible. But by taking that hard line, he may well be condemning people to death. We have to accept that drug use is happening. People have been aware of the dangers for decades and continue to use, and with that in mind surely it is better to accept the reality, and focus on safety.

Various groups have conducted their own testing at Australian festivals, which showed up a range of chemicals masquerading as narcotics. Ritalin sold as Ketamine, Dextromethorphan (the active ingredient in cough syrup) in place of MDMA. More worrying results turned up results like amphetamines in place of ecstasy.

With possibly scant sympathy for punters cheated of their high, some might see little difference in one drug in place of another. However, the difference in dosage and individual reactions can be the difference between life or death. Ignorance as to the substance you are consuming can lead to overdosing, or unpleasant reactions to differing 'highs'. There is also the worst case scenario that your pills maybe be genuine poison.

A publication which offered pill testing at a bush doof reported this example as to why festivals are so dangerous for drug use: one patron, on finding out that their pills were not what they expected, said 'If I was in town I'd call another person get some other stuff ... but I'm in the fucking bush and I'll have to take it.' However, another also summed up how pill testing can genuinely bring a level of caution; 'I was going to take it without any thought, but now this has got me a little scared.'

Drug related fatalities at music festival have sadly increased, and these are not all from overdosing. More often than not, problems arise from patrons indulging in something without knowing the actual contents of what their consuming. It is these lives that pill testing could easily save — as well as opening eyes to the realities of street drugs trade.


Susie GarrardSusie Garrard is a British writer, currently living in Sydney after relocating from London. Employed in the music industry, her work has appeared in a number of related publications in both the UK and Australia. Often provoking responses with social commentary or politically driven pieces.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Susie Garrard, drug testing, music festivals



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Existing comments

"as well as opening eyes to the realities of street drugs trade." In the parable of Lazarus, Dives is told that if his five stiff-necked brothers will not listen to the documentary evidence of Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced by someone rising from the dead. The evidence of the realities of street drugs trade is available everywhere, even at the eye-witness level of watching someone overheating on a dance floor from taking 'ecstasy'. If the punters refuse to see what is plain, drug testing facilities aren't going to change their consumer habits. They can't even legitimately criticise their vendor and change to another because vendors don't know what they are selling, taking on trust what the 'laboratories' tell them. And so the government kindly becomes a quality control service for the drug trade. People who become sick should be treated, healed ... and charged. Those who die can have their souls prayed for and those who live severely impaired as to be unproductive will just have to learn how to repent at leisure for the grief caused to their loved ones, courtesy of Australian welfare budgets.
Roy Chen Yee | 27 August 2016

What you suggest is so eminently sane I really do wonder about those who object to it on supposedly 'moral grounds'. They tend to be the ignorant and the politicians who 'buy' their votes by pandering to their totally unscientific beliefs. A plague on both their houses.
Edward Fido | 29 August 2016

Having worked with young people and their families for over 50 years ( including those who are addicted to illicit drugs , I suggest we follow Portugal's example and decriminalise , they did this 12 years ago and have been extremely successful , money spent on Policing has gone into Health , Education and Employment , they have also cut out the criminal element ........they are now looking at Legalisation
NicHastings-James | 29 August 2016

Both topics today illustrate the warning of Proverbs 29:18. There are various translations. The Jerusalem Bible says, ’Where there is no Vision, the people get out of hand’. The Vulgate suggests, ’When prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered abroad.’ It is put starkly in the King James version; ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. A modern adaptation might put it, ‘If people are not in tune with the Spirit of God, they regress to destructive feral behaviour’. This is what seems to be happening worldwide.
Robert Liddy | 29 August 2016

The current situation is obviously out of hand, and current punitive approaches not working, or worse. I agree with a number of correspondents that what the drug culture represents is foolishness and evil in about equal measure. But we do need a better societal response; and I would agree with "legalisation", but as part of this also intense mass media campaigns, heavy control/licensing etc of provision, and finally big taxation.
Eugene | 29 August 2016

Roy Chen Chee - the proposal is not for the government to provide the drug testing service - but simply to allow an independent/private lab to conduct the tests without fear of being arrested. There's evidence that the adverse affects of substances like ecstacy are far less than the legal substance of alcohol. The difference is that the one rare and lethal ecstacy pill could have been detected and the death prevented. People will always take these substances, so it;s simply a matter of whether we continue to allow them to die and not let their pill get tested.
AURELIUS | 01 September 2016

When will society at large accept that there is no safe illicit drug, nor will there ever be one. QED
Pongo | 04 September 2016

Aurelius: "There's evidence that the adverse affects of substances like ecstacy are far less than the legal substance of alcohol." And this is because there have been extensive peer-reviewed trials of these illicit drugs? Manufacturers of legal pharmaceuticals, alcohol and tobacco have to go through the hoops to get their products certified. That's why we assume (because, even then, there are incidents) their products are safe if taken as recommended by medical professionals. Why don't we have a moonshine or backyard tobacco problem? Because alcohol and tobacco don't derange the senses as much, there's no money for drug gangs in them. Some drugs are just too dangerous to be allowed de jure. So, they shouldn't be 'legalised' de facto by allowing them in the community, through the use of testing facilities, on a 'don't ask don't tell' basis. Plus, there are always more potent forms coming on the illegal market. We now have something called W18, which supposedly leaves no trace in the blood. Do you think any government trying to fulfil its public safety duty would legalise an intoxicant that cannot be tested for several hours later? Several hours later, a punter could be flying a plane.
Roy Chen Yee | 07 September 2016


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