The faces of our failure

Pete Moss writes about the need to recognise the heavy handed criminalisation of drugs and be open to changes that save lives

On 21 October 1995, 15-year-old Anna Wood dressed up for a rave party at the old Phoenician Club on Sydney’s Broadway, after telling her parents she was headed for a sleepover.

Her death three days later, from secondary effects related to the consumption of ecstasy, ignited a fierce debate about party drugs and the music scene.

Thirty years on, in the summer of 2015, a similar furore flared from similarly entrenched positions after a series of drug deaths at music festivals.

One voice rang out, that of Anna Wood’s father Tony, who told The Daily Telegraph:

‘We hoped Anna’s death would make a difference, but we are not making progress against drugs. I think the pro-legalisation lobby has a lot to answer for. They keep on about harm reduction. They say just take the stuff safely, there is no safe way. You just don’t know what will happen when you take drugs.’

For the young lives lost, the always-grieving family and friends, there are other voices. Two lost children as a direct result of policing approved by state governments.

James Munro, 23, drove overnight from Melbourne with friends for the huge Defqon dance party, held in Sydney’s west in 2013, where he overdosed on three ecstasy tablets.

His father Stephen told the ABC: ‘He had some ecstasy tablets with him [and he] decided to take them before entering Defqon. There was a police presence at the gates and a concern he would be detected’.

In February 2009, 17-year-old Perth hairdresser Gemma Thom queued to join a 40,000-strong crowd at the Big Day Out, headlined by Neil Young. The ticket in her pocket was a Christmas present from her parents Peta and Paul.

Gemma had taken one tablet. She panicked after seeing sniffer dogs and ate two more.

Her parents now advocate for drug-testing at festivals – so patrons can safely check what’s in their pills. Mum Peta told 60 Minutes: ‘How can they say [drug-testing is] not a good thing? It’s not just my daughter, it’s other people’s daughters and sons. It’s a life’.

Protecting, not punishing, young people should be the over-riding policy priority for our elected politicians. But, for some, it is not.

Asked if the NSW Government would back drug-testing trials after the latest spate of overdoses, Deputy Premier and Police Minister Troy Grant said: ‘We’re not going to set up a regime testing for something that’s illegal to see if it’s safe to ingest or not’.

Grant threatened to ban festivals that fail to improve ‘safety standards’, while assuring his local constituents that Dubbo’s own ROAR event would proceed in April. The electronic dance party is expected to attract 10,000 fans aged 15-plus.

In 2014, 1.28 million people attended music festivals, generating $130 million in revenue, the lion’s share in NSW and much of that in regional areas. Byron Bay Bluesfest is the fifth-largest music festival in the world.

For many young and not-so-young patrons, illicit drugs are an integral part of the festival experience.

Mitch Wilson, 26, is a keen festival-goer and activist with Labor Loves Live Music.

‘There are lots of people doing drugs at festivals. Not overdosing, but with friends, looking out for each other, and often having the best time of their lives,’ he said.

Some defy expectations. In December 2015, three Western Australian police constables were found to have taken ecstasy or methamphetamine at electronic event Stereosonic.

A 2015 household survey reported more than one-in-four Australians aged 20-29 took illicit drugs in the preceding 12 months.

Today there are more deaths and more overdoses from more varieties of drugs. The need for live-saving action has never been so evident.

Yet for 30 years the public debate has been dominated by ignorance, hypocrisy and political cowardice.

Privately, many senior politicians concede that policy must shift to save lives, according to Vivienne Moxham-Hall, Secretary of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

‘Policy and papers are one thing, but what’s needed is political movement,’ said Moxham-Hall, who in 2015 founded Labor for Drug Law Reform.

She said: ‘One barrier to change is the real stigma attached to both drug users and to advocates for drug policy reform’.

That stigma reaches into senior Labor ranks. A scheduled health policy debate at the Party’s 2014 NSW Annual Conference was shelved in its entirety, Vivienne believes, to avoid discussion of her motion to approve a medicinal cannabis trial.

Soon afterwards, Labor was outflanked as both Mike Baird and Tony Abbott backed clinical trials.

Moxham-Hall said a 2006 Ombudsman’s report should have ended the use of sniffer dogs in NSW.

The then Ombudsman Bruce Barbour found that canine detection was expensive, ineffective and targetted minor cannabis users rather than suppliers.

But his advice was ignored and today NSW spends an estimated $800,000 per year on drug dogs.

For that money, Dr David Caldicott, Emergency Medical Consultant at Canberra’s Calvary Hospital, could construct eight sophisticated drug-testing units staffed by medical professionals.

The sharply eloquent Irishman has been on a mission since 2001, when a 21-year-old man in Caldicott’s care died after consuming PMA: ‘a very bad drug’.

‘As a doctor my responsibility under the Hippocratic Oath is to ensure people don’t get hurt. That’s why I’ve taken a strong stand for testing at festivals,’ said Caldicott.

He said government-tolerated drug-testing common across Europe offers proven blueprints for Australia.

‘In Zurich, each year researchers, chemists and doctors set up a state-of-the-art mobile laboratory at Europe’s biggest street party.’

Festival-goers queue ‘five-deep’ to test party drugs. When a dangerous batch is identified, warnings flash across screens at the event.

Test results take 20-40 minutes, an interval employed by researchers to interact with users.

‘This process modifies and mitigates the way people take drugs. Most users say they won’t take drugs that contain unexpected ingredients,’ said Dr Caldicott.

The test results and user interviews also deliver a treasure trove of data that would otherwise be beyond the reach of law enforcement and health authorities.

‘There is a multitude of new compounds available via the internet. Labs, sniffer dogs and customs can’t keep up. In Australia we’re now finding MDMA (ecstasy) of a purity and dose never seen before. The ability to identify what people are using is itself a compelling justification for on-site testing,’ said the Canberra specialist.

How many more young people will die before political leaders accept the need to trial evidenced-based approaches to drug use at festivals?

Patrick Donovan, CEO of Music Victoria, hopes the deaths over the 2015-16 summer may prove ‘a tipping point’.

His counterpart at MusicNSW, Emily Collins, agrees: ‘We need to change the way we deal with this issue. I’d like to see festivals be a safe space for music fans’.

She supports drug-testing, free water, on-site health services and female security guards as ‘some of the ways we can make this happen’.

NSW Deputy Opposition Leader Linda Burney said ‘banning festivals is not the answer’. She called for a parliamentary inquiry.

‘Tough talking is all very well but the talking needs to be done with people who understand the challenges, who organise festivals, and to young people,’ said Burney.

Anna Wood’s father Tony is right about one thing: ‘… we are not making progress against drugs.’

For political parties that accept donations from the alcohol industry – which in 2010 killed 5,554 Australians and hospitalised 157,132 – there is no moral high ground.

But there is the opportunity to recognise the tragic consequences of heavy-handed criminalisation, and open the door to changes that may save young lives.

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