‘Can I take 10 MDMA tabs in a day?’
ON HOT weekends over summer, while debate rages over what to do about Australia's music festival drug crisis, there are people already on the front line taking the problem into their own hands.
Crowd care crews offer festival-goers everything from harm-reduction advice and emotional support, to electrolyte icy poles and sunscreen on a hot day.
Thousands of revellers would have crossed paths with DanceWize representatives dressed in distinct purple vests at Electric Gardens, Hardcore Till I Die and Rolling Loud music festivals in Sydney over the Australia Day long weekend.
They may have noticed them handing out hundreds of water bottles or pulling hyperventilating people out of mosh pits and taking them to medics.
Since its inception in September 2017, DanceWize NSW has helped more than 90,500 festival revellers with everything from distressing drug or alcohol symptoms, sexual assaults and thefts, to providing accessing earplugs and condoms.
Most volunteers have received online and face-to-face training in pharmacology, the legal practice and overdose prevention and response. They're also being taught how to deal with mental health crises and blood borne viruses.
They work from "chill out" tents, which are considered safe spaces away from authorities, and rove through festival crowds looking for anyone having a hard time.
THE BIRTH OF DANCEWIZE
NSW Users and AIDS Association CEO Mary Ellen Harrod, who has long been an advocate for effective system changes that would support the health and human rights of people who use drugs, started DanceWize NSW after a discussion with her then 19-year-old son and some of his friends.
"I sat them down at the pub one night and actually had a really frank discussion around what they thought was needed and this program directly grew out of that conversation," Dr Harrod said.
"Peer-education, evidence-based information and support was missing and they just wanted a sound place to get advice.
"At DanceWize, we're now able to provide a lot of education about what leads to an overdose and dangerous combinations."
DRUGS AND COPS AT FESTIVALS
DanceWize NSW co-ordinator Dan Burns said the drugs that appeared at every festival were alcohol, MDMA and ketamine. He said it would be naive to think people weren't using drugs at all festivals, labelling drug use a "mainstream thing".
"We don't talk about safe drugs. We talk about safer drug use," Mr Burns said.
He said support volunteers needed to be able to have "those frank conversations" with festival patrons, and claimed "telling people that these drugs are illegal and dangerous has never stopped people from using them".
Mr Burns said protecting people on the front line was incredibly taxing on his team but more than 100 volunteers continued to back the program. There's also no shortage of new people who want to sign up, with 83 applications presently awaiting review.
"We're dealing with people experiencing deep and sometimes extreme adverse reactions to drugs, including psychotic or violent episodes. We also respond to seizures and unconscious people," Mr Burns said.
Mr Burns said anecdotal experiences and observations made by police or emergency doctors were not enough to prevent "dodgy" drugs from circulating.
While conceding police and peer-education organisations, like DanceWize, don't always see eye-to-eye, Mr Burns said their primary concern was the same - to get everybody home safely.
"We need to be able to work together because that's what we're all there to do," he said.
"But we both represent different prongs of harm minimisation because they're about supply reduction and stopping people from taking drugs, while we're about harm reduction and acknowledging that people are taking drugs. It's a tough one to work out."
A 'SOBER' FRIEND
Key peer educator Adam Smith, 22, signed up as a volunteer after having a personal experience with the service at a warehouse party in 2017.
"I witnessed a girl overdose in the crowd and I was the first person on the scene and I tried to get help and it stressed me out enormously," Mr Smith told news.com.au.
"Someone from DanceWize came over and asked if I was OK and I told them I'd just had a really stressful situation. They sat me down, gave me a camomile tea and talked me through what I was going through.
"I was pretty much in tears and I came out of it feeling amazing. I wasn't going to go to the police, I wasn't going to go to medical, but this was exactly what I needed."
Mr Smith, who has attended six festivals as a peer educator, said DanceWize volunteers needed to be approachable and provide revellers "open and honest" answers.
"Sometimes we can be like the sober friend in a group and just say, 'Hey mate, maybe slow down a little bit'," he said.
"I've had punters ask me a million questions from whether it's OK to do this and that together. I've even had one person come up and ask me if would it be OK if they were to take 10 MDMA capsules in a day."
Mr Smith said he had been "vomited on so many times it wasn't funny" but acknowledged the reward that came from helping people was worth it.
"People are talking about us and they really just love the ability to have those open conversations they can't really have with anyone else, and get information and advice that they can't find anywhere else," he said.
BREAKING DOWN STIGMA AND SUPPORTING PILL TESTING
Counsellor Diego Rivera, 28, is just one of several peer educators who brings an extra skill to the table.
Mr Rivera joined DanceWize because he believes it removes the stigma linked to drugs and said the key to successful relationships was giving people "unconditional positive regard".
"It's very hard to have a transparent conversation about alcohol and drugs because of the criminality associated to it but DanceWize creates connections with people that don't exist in any other environment," he said.
"There's risk associated with every single drug but knowledge is power. On the weekend, we had a situation where there was a young guy under the age of 18 who had taken two MDMA capsules and he came over to us and asked if it was a good idea to have another and he was talked out of it."
Mr Rivera said peer educators were often asked about the dangers of mixing drugs, with many people completely unaware of potentially lethal combinations.
"The amount of young people that mix ketamine and alcohol, cocaine and alcohol, and MDMA and alcohol is ridiculous. You literally see their stomachs drop when they see red Xs next to those combinations," Mr Rivera said.
"They often say 'Oh my God why didn't we learn about this in school? Or why hasn't anyone told me this?' and I tell them it's because there's a war on drugs."
Given Mr Rivera's professional background, his favourite part of the job is de-escalating intense situations and helping hot headed people in the crowd cool down.
He said the praise he receives from users of DanceWize made him feel like a "superhero".
Mr Rivera believes the introduction of pill testing in Australia is inevitable if young people continue to use their political vote and voice.
"It's not a matter of if, but when," he said.
"We have more social capital. We are young people and we're more effective than 50-year-old guys in suits telling people that the safest way to use drugs is not to use them at all. But if you've got them, there are some things you need to take into account."
'PEOPLE HAVE BEEN USING DRUGS AT FESTIVALS SINCE WOODSTOCK'
University of Newcastle Professor Alison Hutton, who is recognised as a world leader in mass gathering health and research, has weighed in on the pill testing debate, saying it's not going away.
Prof Hutton says policing methods can be ineffective and, in some cases, may increase harm but agreed that the way drugs are viewed in wider society restricted the implementation of harm minimisation strategies at festivals.
"Young people who are scared of being caught with drugs by police during searches at entry points to or within the music festival site have been known to ingest all their drugs at one time to avoid getting caught by police - often with fatal consequences," she wrote in an opinion piece for the Newcastle Herald.
"Excessive drinking and the ingestion of drugs by young people at music festivals is a serious public health issue. To support young people to reduce harm we need to think more broadly than targeting the individual in a paternalistic way and expecting them to comply. Young people need to be actively engaged in choices that affect their health."
Prof Hutton said allowing for pill testing at an event did not have to mean that those people administering the testing were condoning drug taking but rather act as an avenue to educate and have a conversation with young people about what they are taking and why.
"Pill testing recognises that people use illicit substances at events - in fact we know people have been using illicit substances at festivals since Woodstock," Prof Hutton said.
"As with any type of harm minimisation strategy, it's not just about stopping the behaviour, it's about gaining a better understanding of the behaviour."
Prof Hutton said it was important people continued to talk about illicit drug use instead of driving discussions "underground".