Festivals in Australia often have many drugs present. Picture: iStock
Festivals in Australia often have many drugs present. Picture: iStock

What critics of pill testing are ignoring

I was 21 when I was offered my first pill at a music festival.

Truthfully, I didn't know what was in my hand. Most of the group mused that it was MDMA mixed with a dash of speed, but none of us knew for sure. I rolled the tiny cap between my thumb and index finger to inspect its golden-tinged contents with my iPhone's torchlight, my stomach the new home to millions of imaginary beetles and butterflies.

It was New Year's Eve, 2015, and I was at Beyond The Valley music festival in Lardner Victoria; the same event where a 20-year-old Mansfield man overdosed last weekend. He died on New Year's Day. Last week 22-year-old Brisbane man Josh Tam died after taking "unknown substances" at the Lost Paradise festival, held on NSW's Central Coast in December.

This news follows what has been a devastating few months for Australian festival goers. Five Aussies have died in as many months by accidental overdose.

22-year-old Josh Tam died after taking an “unknown substance” while attending the Lost Paradise festival in NSW. Picture: supplied
22-year-old Josh Tam died after taking an “unknown substance” while attending the Lost Paradise festival in NSW. Picture: supplied

I've been to many big music festivals. The year after Beyond The Valley, I went to Falls Festival in Lorne. I've been to Groovin' The Moo in Bendigo every year since I turned 20. What I've learned in that time is that each glitter-infused, nipple-tasselled event is dripping in drugs.

Despite them being illegal. Despite the sniffer dogs. Despite the police, who always show up in full force. Despite the festival organisers dutifully searching each and every car. Pills and powders pour into these events because there is such high demand and oh-so-many creative places to stash them. In the cat-and-mouse chase between the police and drug dealers, the latter always prevail to some degree. Not because "druggies", "hippies", or "musos" are taking them, but because so many young people, from different backgrounds, are.

Yes. Even university-educated, clever, switched-on kids are popping $25 pills without the faintest clue of what's actually in them. Last year, at Groovin' The Moo, I saw a guy snort god-knows-what off an abandoned drinks table.

Despite the presence of police and sniffer dogs at festivals, drugs often find their way in. Picture: Toby Zerna
Despite the presence of police and sniffer dogs at festivals, drugs often find their way in. Picture: Toby Zerna

Later, he guessed it was ketamine, but admitted he found it there and gave it a go without much thought. He's a successful lawyer.

That's the baffling thing about politicians condemning pill testing; they're ignoring the very real possibility that it will be their children who this blind stubbornness affects. The possibility that their sweet sons and daughters will be charging their bodies with illicit substances and later seeking solace in the medic tent seems to completely pass them by.

Telling young people to abstain from drugs is akin to telling them to abstain from rubbing their private parts together: you can say it all you want - hell, you can even give us a pamphlet about it - but if you think your success rate will be high, you're likely to be very disappointed.

Here's a newsflash for the dinosaurs pretending this problem will go away with a few more sniffer dogs or putting up warning posters in toilets: Curiosity is not a new phenomenon. As long as there is music and young people, there will be drugs.

They can sit back and run the risk that the next young adult to die will be one of their own, or they can take the advice of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and acknowledge that we need to do something about this.

"We can't continue to just use a law enforcement solution," president of the AMA, Dr Tony Bartone, told Sky News in September.

President of the AMA, Dr Tony Bartone, views pill testing as an opportunity to educate people about the dangerous consequences of drugs. Picture: Kym Smith
President of the AMA, Dr Tony Bartone, views pill testing as an opportunity to educate people about the dangerous consequences of drugs. Picture: Kym Smith

"We have a serious problem, it is out of control, and we need to have a look at a raft of solutions … The actual episode of testing the pill is not just saying: 'Oh, that's an OK drug, you can take that.' It's an opportunity to try and inform [them] about the dangerous consequences and try to get an opportunity to give them education."

Critics of pill-testing say that it will only open the floodgates to more drug abuse, yet fail to look abroad to where the opposite has been true: studies out of the UK, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany indicated increased drug disposal after testing. In one study, nine out of ten respondents said despite taking illicit drugs, they'd never spoken with a healthcare professional about it before.

Pill testing is an opportunity to access young people. For trained professionals to speak with them, educate and encourage them to make better decisions.

Because if it was your child, 21, tipsy, peering into a little capsule filled with golden flecks, what would you prefer?

A test to clear-up what that pill contains and an explanation of the risk involved? Or a grumpy poster in the port-a-loos that she'll never even read?

Michelle Andrews is a freelance writer and podcast host from Melbourne.