With a 2020 study suggesting that approximately 30 per cent of festival goers have used drugs at music festivals, will intervention methods such as pill testing be the answer to saving the lives of young people across the nation?
Australia is known for its diverse music scene. Especially come festival season. Whether it be indie band enthusiasts, rave heads or conscious rap fans, the majority of young music consumers flock to the sensory playgrounds, craving a form of dopamine that doesn’t translate through a pair of headphones. These gatherings of music lovers create a thrilling atmosphere, where soulful notes of euphoria blend with the sense of community and admiration that all attendees share for their favourite artists.
Despite this, beneath the pulsating rhythms and kaleidoscope lights lies a sobering reality that has tainted societies perceptions of these events: the growing use of illicit substances at music festivals.
Following the news of two men in their 20’s dying after overdosing on MDMA at Sydney’s annual KNOCKOUT OUTDOOR music festival, it has reignited the conversation surrounding a possible introduction of harm reduction protocols. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) Vice Chancellor Senior Research Fellow Monica Barratt is a strong advocate of such methods, in particular Drug Checking Services (otherwise known as pill testing).
Since the state of Queensland has received the green light to roll out such initiatives, Dr Barratt believes that Victoria may be next in implementing these drug checking services on festival grounds across the state.
“We’ve launched a campaign a couple of days ago here in Victoria showing that 77 organisations support drug checking,” she says.
“If we are still going to have drugs supplied by unregulated organisations, then Drug Checking is a line of defence to stop that.”
Even with the Queensland government implementing this intervention strategy, they aren’t the first state or territory to have done so. In 2021, the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdiction in the country to legalise personal drug possession at music festivals. Although legislation was passed in the two years following, 2019’s instalment of Groovin the Moo saw the very first pill testing facilities implemented on Australian soil and reportedly saving the lives of seven attendees after “lethal” substances (n-ethylpentylone) was detected in what was perceived as MDMA.
Dr Barratt’s research also shows the overwhelming amount of public support backing the notion of pill testing. With 63 per cent of Australians for it, as well as another 16 per cent being unsure of what was best. Likewise, there are many steps being taken in countries such as The Netherlands and New Zealand to prevent more deaths from MDMA overdose.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) – an organisation Dr Barratt has also worked with closely, also revealed that the prevalence of MDMA induced hospitalisations has rapidly spiked. In 2011, there were 97 admissions, but by 2019, that number had surged to 477.
Nurse Aliyya Lateef has experienced much of this firsthand during her time spent in hospital and mental health wards across Sydney and explains the confronting realities regarding MDMA overdoses.
“MDMA patients would be on consistent watch and possibly have a guard present around the clock to keep the patient safe and everyone in the vicinity,” she says. “These complex patients can harm themselves within a matter of seconds to minutes or have the intent to harm others, so being vigilant and aware is needed.”
In a line of work that experiences patients at their most vulnerable, medical personnel such as Ms Lateef are on the frontline absorbing the consequences for those who struggle with the impact of what can be a deadly drug. Beyond the immediate physical risks, long-term use of MDMA has been associated with mental health problems. A study done by the National Library of Medicine suggests that prevalence of mental health disorders, as well as nearly half of the sample size of MDMA patients presented symptoms for substance induced cognitive disorders. In spite of these findings of inducing cognitive impairment, Ms Lateef believes suffers turn to this drug for a sense of short term relief.
“MDMA has a calming effect on the mind and body. It increases the production of dopamine and serotonin in the body. These hormones when combined make an individual feel amazing, relaxed, sensual and desirable and gives a sense of being liked by everyone,” she says.
One time user of the substance and self-proclaimed ‘Rave Head’ Shaun Bardsley labels MDMA as “the worst drug out there”. Although experimenting with other substances during his time at music festivals his sole experience of taking the substance was enough to turn him off of it for good.
“I had no control over my body and brain and when we went to the service station to get a cold drink, I ended up laying in the freezer because I genuinely thought I was overheating,” Mr Bardsley says.
Another topic Mr Bardsley feels strongly about is the implementation of sniffer dogs at festivals. In an era where an MDMA epidemic continues to plague the youth of today there remains no significant evidence that police sniffer dogs reduce the rates of drug use. With the three main objectives of lawfully intervening with those trying to get drugs into licensed premises (such as music festivals) being Harm Minimisation, Supply Reduction and Demand Reduction, the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL) believes sniffer dogs don’t adequately address all three categories.
“I understand they want to catch people selling these drugs…but I believe there are many different measures that can be put in place to prevent people from bringing in pills (other than sniffer dogs),” Mr Bardsley says.
The AVIL makes has pointed out that the scare tactic of sniffer dogs “undermines public trust in officials and causes intended harm.”
Having a drug-detection success rate of approximately 25 per cent there are calls for alternative forms of searching individuals for substance possession. With roughly 78 per cent of all strip searches since 2013 yielding no drugs, is it time we look at other methods? Dr Barrett advocates for a less punitive system with less emphasis on the use of sniffer dogs.
The music festival scene in Australia is dynamic and vibrant, it’s a place of joy where music lovers can connect, have fun and celebrate their love of a range of artists. However, it’s also a domain that has exposed a dark underbelly of illicit drug use amongst young people, notably the popularity and devastating effects of substances such as MDMA. With statistics and research shedding light onto the complex issue of legally and safely implementing harm reduction methods.