Study: Testing could prevent festival drug deaths
Analysis of drug-related deaths at Australian festivals over almost a decade has shown that most could potentially have been prevented through harm reduction strategies such as pill testing.
The study, published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy, and led by Associate Professor Jennifer Schumann, from Monash University’s Department of Forensic Medicine, looked at drug-related deaths at music festivals throughout Australia between 1 July 2000 and 31 December 2019.
There were 64 deaths during the period, mostly of males aged in their mid-20s. The drug most commonly detected or reported as being used was MDMA (65.6%), followed by alcohol (46.9%) and cannabis (17.2%), with the majority of deaths being unintentional.
Drug use among music festival attendees is disproportionally high compared with the general population, notes the study, with a recent survey of 2,305 participants at 23 festivals in Victoria reporting that almost half (48%) had recently used drugs and 24% intended to take illicit drugs at the next festival.
While law enforcement-centred strategies intended to deter drug use and supply at mass gatherings have been put in place throughout Australia, Schumann says that “many have been criticised for their lack of effectiveness, with evidence suggesting that they can inadvertently increase the risk of drug harm”.
Nine people were placed in medically induced comas after suspected MDMA overdoses at Melbourne’s Hardmission Festival earlier this month, with two others hospitalised following last week’s Juicy Fest. The incidents sparked renewed calls to state governments to legalise pill testing, with many saying the scale of the overdoses highlight the urgency of the issue.
Pill testing allows the general public to submit drugs for toxicological analysis indicating the contents, dose and purity of pills and powders. The Monash-led study notes that countries such as the Netherlands have used drug checking for over three decades to understand the dynamic recreational drug market, providing toxico-surveillance data to the European Union Early Warning System as part of the Drug Information and Monitoring System.
“There are no current plans to change the policy setting on drug checking”
Although critics argue that pill testing “condones drug use or providing patrons with a false sense of security over the contents of their drugs, the study concludes that: “Research demonstrates that people who both have and never used ecstasy report being no more likely to use it at a festival when drug checking is provided than when it is not.
“The importance of drug counsellors on-site as part of the drug checking operation, to provide context to the results provided and to counsel consumers on how to avoid harm from drug use, is integral to reducing harm.”
In 2023, a coroner in Victoria became the fourth in six years to call for the introduction of pill testing after a man died from an MDMA pill at a festival last year.
Australia currently has one drug checking service in the Australian Capital Territory, with Queensland also planning to introduce the system. But Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan says there are no plans for the state to follow suit.
“There are no current plans to change the policy setting on drug checking,” Allan told ABC Melbourne radio, as per The Age. “However, I am seeking further advice from the health department about what we’re seeing over the summer period. There is a lot of expert advice that’s already in this space, and I will acknowledge, too, there’s also reports from coroners’ processes previously. So I think it’s important to examine that evidence and advice.
“I also need to have further conversations with colleagues, ministerial colleagues who have the policy responsibility for this area. So I do want to get that advice, have those discussions.”
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Minsters urged to expand drug testing at festivals
A parliamentary committee has urged the UK government to expand on-site drug testing at festivals.
In a newly published report, the Home Affairs Committee criticises drug laws as “outdated and in need of reform” and calls for a new legislative and funding framework that enables “practical, risk-reducing interventions such as establishing a pilot drug consumption facility and drug testing at festivals”.
The committee points out that countries such as the United States, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Canada, Austria and Australia have established drug checking services for festival-goers.
“Drug-checking services can help reduce the harms caused by high strength or dangerous combinations of drugs, and provide advice on harm reduction to users,” it says. “The government should expand the availability of these services at music festivals and within the night-time economy, with a dedicated licensing scheme in place ahead of the 2024 festival season.”
UK promoters previously accused the Home Office of putting gig-goers “at risk” following an apparent U-turn on drug testing at festivals earlier this summer.
Manchester’s 80,000-cap Parklife festival was unable to test confiscated pills at the June event after drug testing nonprofit The Loop was informed it needed to apply for a special licence rather than relying on its agreement with the police. The licence costs upwards of £3,000 and can take three months to process.
Parklife had worked with police and The Loop to test confiscated drugs on site for the previous eight years. Attendees were previously able to submit drugs for testing to establish their content before consumption, with a “push notification” alert subsequently sent to them if the tests show the drugs are a serious threat to health.
“There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider this”
The festival’s founder, night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester Sacha Lord, argued that without the provision of drug checking, the risk of drug-related harms or overdose at festivals could increase.
However, a Home Office spokesperson moved to distance the government from the committee’s recommendations.
“There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider this,’ says the spokesperson. “Our 10-year drugs strategy set out ambitious plans, backed with a record £3bn funding over three years, to tackle the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action and building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people’s lives around and prevent crime.”
In 2016, Secret Garden Party became the first British camping festival to give attendees the chance to test the content of their drugs without fear of recrimination, with Kendal Calling following a week later. A drug harm-reduction campaign piloted by the Irish HSE (Health and Safety Executive) at last summer’s Electric Picnic was also rolled out across a number of other festivals in Ireland this summer.
In the wake of the latest report, Night Time Industries Association CEO Michael Kill is calling for urgent modernisation of the UK government’s drug policy.
“The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has served its purpose, but the landscape has evolved dramatically since its enactment,” says Kill. “Our European neighbours have taken proactive measures to address drug-related challenges, prioritising harm reduction and public safety. It is high time for the UK to catch up and adopt a more pragmatic and modern approach.”
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UK promoters hit out at drug testing ‘U-turn’
UK promoters have accused the Home Office of putting gig-goers “at risk” following an apparent U-turn on drug testing at festivals.
The Guardian reports that Manchester’s 80,000-cap Parklife festival was unable to test confiscated pills last weekend after drug testing nonprofit The Loop was informed it needed to apply for a special licence rather than relying on its agreement with the police.
Parklife co-founder and night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester Sacha Lord decries the late intervention by the government department.
“Drug testing onsite has been an essential part of the work we do with the support of Greater Manchester police to keep festivalgoers safe. This move is a disappointing, senseless U-turn of government policy that puts people at risk,” he says.
“This huge misstep from the Home Office could set a potentially dangerous precedent for the summer’s festival season. We call for an immediate reversal of this decision so that organisers can continue to prioritise the safety of festivalgoers.”
“If festival organisers fear their safeguarding measures will be pulled at the 11th hour, then how can we guarantee the wellbeing of our guests?”
The Heaton Park event had worked with police and The Loop to test confiscated drugs on site for the previous eight years. Attendees were previously able to submit drugs for testing to establish their content before consumption, with a “push notification” alert subsequently sent to them if the tests show the drugs are a serious threat to health.
Festival Republic MD Melvin Benn describes the latest turn of events is “extremely worrying” for both the industry and fans.
“If festival organisers fear their safeguarding measures will be pulled at the 11th hour, then how can we guarantee the wellbeing of our guests?” he tells the Guardian.
In response, a spokesperson for the Home Office says: “Anyone interested in undertaking lawful activities involving the possession, supply or production of controlled drugs, including those who wish to provide drug testing services, need to apply for a Home Office licence.
“Festival organisers in consultation with local partners are responsible for decisions relating to drug testing at festivals. We will continue an open dialogue with prospective licensees throughout the festival season.”
According to festival organisers, a Home Office licence can cost in excess of £3,000
In 2016, Secret Garden Party became the first British camping festival to give attendees the chance to test the content of their drugs without fear of recrimination, with Kendal Calling following a week later. Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, told IQ at the time drug testing is a “no-brainer”, adding around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content.
According to festival organisers, a Home Office licence can take more than three months to be granted, and can cost in excess of £3,000 (€3,500).
It was recently announced, meanwhile, that drug harm-reduction campaign piloted by the Irish HSE (Health and Safety Executive) at last summer’s Electric Picnic is being rolled out across a number of other festivals in Ireland.
The Safer Nightlife programme will include “back of house” drug checking through the use of surrender bins, media awareness and a social media campaign. Teams of HSE trained volunteers will available to talk about the scheme, drug trends and harm-reduction practices with attendees, while also supporting people in cases of drug emergencies.
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Drug harm reduction scheme partners with festivals
A drug harm-reduction campaign piloted by HSE (Health and Safety Executive) at last summer’s Electric Picnic is being rolled out across a number of other Irish festivals.
The Safer Nightlife programme, which will begin at the upcoming Life Festival in Mullingar, with other participating events still to be announced, will include “back of house” drug checking through the use of surrender bins, media awareness and a social media campaign.
Teams of HSE trained volunteers will available to talk about the scheme, drug trends and harm-reduction practices with attendees, while also supporting people in cases of drug emergencies.
“I am delighted to launch the second phase of our Safer Nightlife campaign that includes an expanded ‘back of house’ drug checking service with an aim to identify drug market trends of concern,” says Prof Eamon Keenan, HSE’s national clinical lead, addiction services. “This approach will improve our drug monitoring capabilities and help to tailor our harm reduction services in Ireland.
“Through a ‘back of house’ approach we can access drugs in a safe, non-judgemental manner to quickly gain insight on what drugs may be in circulation and issue real time drug alerts about substances of concern to festival attendees via our social media channels.”
The multi-component campaign aims to help educate people who use drugs at events so they can make informed decisions
The multi-component campaign aims to help educate people who use drugs at events so they can make informed decisions. Keenan notes that the first phase, conducted at Electric Picnic last summer, shows the approach has the potential to identify trends otherwise unknown.
“The HSE found trends of concern including high potency drugs, 12 new psychoactive substances and four drugs which had never been identified before in Ireland,” he says.
The HSE’s message is that it is always safer not to use drugs at all, but that it needs to acknowledge that festivals can be risk-taking settings where people may try drugs for the first time, or try new types of drugs.
“The programme was incredibly successful in 2022, and allowed us to highlight particularly dangerous substances encountered in festival settings while also creating greater awareness for people who use drugs as part of the night time economy,” adds Hildegarde Naughton, minister for public health, wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy.
“The programme for government contains the commitment to increase drug monitoring at festivals, and harm reduction interventions, such as the Safer Nightlife Programme, can save people’s lives. I will continue to work alongside colleagues in the HSE to see this invaluable initiative rolled out even further in the months and years ahead.”
NZ government funds drug checks at live music events
New Zealand’s government has put NZD 800,000 (€494,000) towards recreational drug checks at festivals and concerts.
While pill testing in the country has operated to some extent for years, the Labour government only legalised operations in December 2020 to allow for pill testing at last year’s summer festivals.
However, due to a lack of funding, the country’s main provider of drug testing services wasn’t able to operate at most major events.
NZ’s health minister says the new funding will be used to train more drug-checkers and establish national coordination of pill testing services.
“This is not about condoning drug use, but about keeping people safe,” health minister Andrew Little said in a statement.
“There is clear evidence that having drug-checking services at festivals changes behaviour and reduces harm.”
The National Party’s justice spokesman, Simon Bridges, says it’s a “slippery” move towards decriminalisation “by stealth” but the Green Party supports the funding.
“This is not about condoning drug use, but about keeping people safe”
A study from Victoria University, released in February, argued the presence of Know Your Stuff at festivals reduced drug use.
The study found 68% of people either disposed of their drugs or changed their consumption habits after checking the drugs at the Know Your Stuff tent.
“Festival organisers who invited Know Your Stuff to their events noted fewer serious incidents related to illicit drug use and emphasised the importance,” says associate professor of criminology Fiona Hutton.
In neighbouring Australia, the live music industry has long been lobbying for pill testing at music festivals – which has been successfully trialled twice in 2018 and 2019.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of the Australian public are in favour of pill testing at music festivals, recent national data shows.
The UK government has also been urged to support drug testing at festivals in order to increase the safety of festivalgoers.
Dutch minister: We need fewer festivals
The Dutch festival market remains one of the most vibrant in the world. EM Cultuur estimates the Netherlands’ festivals will receive 19.5 million visitors in 2019 alone, while IQ’s recent market report found that it’s “hard to find anyone, in fact, who doesn’t believe the Dutch live business is broadly in the prime of its life”. But what if, instead of there being lots of festivals, there weren’t?
That’s the question being posed by the country’s justice minister, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, who is calling for a reduction in the number of festivals to help police crack down on illegal drug use.
In the Netherlands, it is legal to possess small quantity of drugs at festivals for personal use, according to NLTimes.nl, though a larger quantity (ie for supplying) should see the owner hauled off to a police station for questioning. This, however, is hardly ever enforced, suggests Grapperhaus, owing to the sheer number of music events that need to be policed.
“The problem is that we have 1,100 festivals in the Netherlands”
“The problem is that we have 1,100 festivals in the Netherlands,” he says in an interview with the Telegraaf today. “Do we have to deploy all our police to that end?”
Asked by the paper whether he thinks the number of festivals should be decreased, he replies: “Yes. I think we should be critical and say: can we handle all this?”
The Netherlands, known for its liberal attitude towards drug use, most famous cannabis, is one of several European countries where authorities tolerate drug testing on festival sites as a harm-reduction measure.
Drug testing saves lives at GTM Canberra festival
The Pill Testing Australia (PTA) consortium returned to Canberra-based music festival Groovin the Moo for the second time this year, with increased numbers of punters using the service and a higher quantity of lethal substances detected.
The consortium, previously known as the Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE), detected seven lethal substances among the 171 samples tested.
The testing revealed the potential fatal samples to contain n-ethylpentylone, a substituted cathinone believed to be responsible for a number of deaths, detected for the first time in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) during the first drug-testing trial at Groovin’ the Moo last year.
PTA reports that in all seven cases, those found to possess potentially harmful substances elected to discard the drugs in the amnesty bin after learning about the dangers involved.
MDMA, cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine were also identified during the trial at Groovin the Moo (20,000-cap.) which featured performances from Billie Eilish and Hilltop Hoods.
According to PTA, the second edition of the pill testing service was “overwhelmingly positive”. The organisation carried out twice the amount of tests as the year before, with 234 punters opting to use the service, compared to 129 in 2018.
Despite the success, PTA has announced that the drug testing at this year’s Groovin the Moo would be the last free trial it runs in the ACT, as enough data has been collected to prove the pilot works.
“This is a healthcare intervention and we are trying to encourage young people to learn a little about the stuff they are putting into themselves”
A PTA representative confirms that the consortium would like to continue testing but could not do so on a self-funding basis.
“Pill Testing Australia is a not-for-profit, we’re only looking at cost recovery,” says PTA co-founder, Gino Vumbaca.
The organisation is crowdfunding to run further pill-testing trials at music festivals, as well as exploring the use of public subscriptions and promoter-based funding. PTA has ruled out charging festivalgoers for the service.
“We will never charge the punter,” says PTA’s Dr David Caldicott. “This is a healthcare intervention and we are trying to encourage young people to learn a little about the stuff they are putting into themselves.”
The ACT is currently the only state in Australia to allow pill testing. ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris says the state government is committed to “contemporary approaches”, focused on harm reduction, rather than punitive practices.
Groovin the Moo festivals taking place in Adelaide and Maitland, New South Wales (NSW), over the weekend (26 to 28 April) did not offer pill-testing services. NSW police said 14 people were taken to hospital with suspected drug and alcohol intoxication cases at the Maitland festival.
NSW has been at the centre of the pill testing discussion, following a strong of drug-related deaths at festivals in the region. The government has consistently rejected calls to introduce testing services, opting for the implementation of new licensing laws that demand detailed safety plans from festival organisers and impose significant licensing and security costs.
Bluesfest threatens to leave NSW in policy dispute
The founder of Byron Bay Bluesfest, Peter Noble, is one of several music industry professionals to speak out against the New South Wales government over heightened licensing and security costs for music festivals.
“I am saying now, Bluesfest will leave NSW. We have no choice it’s a matter of survival. Will the last festival to leave NSW please turn out the light of culture in this soon to be barren state?” writes Bluesfest founder, Noble.
The NSW government introduced new licensing regulations for music festivals last month, following a string of suspected drug-related deaths at festivals in the state. The regulations place more responsibility on festival organisers to ensure the safety of patrons and incur many additional licensing and security costs.
The government continues to refuse to introduce drug testing at festivals in the state, despite calls from the Australian Festival Association and family and friends of the deceased.
The Byron Bay Bluesfest, set to take place from 18 to 22 April, this year celebrates its 30th anniversary, in what is tipped to be the festival’s “best year ever”.
Noble states that the event’s designation of ‘high risk’ under the new legislation signifies the revocation of the festival’s full-strength liquor license and “a myriad of other costs”, totalling “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
Noble describes the policy as “poorly thought-out, unbalanced legislation”, and states the government has implemented new laws “without full consultation of stake holders, or meetings with entertainment industry professionals.”
“Will the last festival to leave NSW please turn out the light of culture in this soon to be barren state?”
“I charge the Government with a systemic failure in fairness here, and implore all politicians from all parties to quickly become involved with what is a serious injustice,” writes Noble.
Mountain Sounds, which announced the cancellation a week before the event was scheduled to take place, accuses the government of “fear-mongering, bullying and oppressing the youth”, in what it refers to as a “war on festivals”.
“We were told we would have to pay an additional upfront amount of approximately $200,000 for 45 user pay police on a 24 hour cycle. This came one week out from the festival and blindsided us as we were quoted for 11 user pay police on the 18th of January,” reads the organisers’ statement.
Australian music festivals face strict licensing laws
The government in New South Wales has introduced new licensing regulations for music festivals following a string of suspected drug-related deaths at festivals in the southeastern Australian state.
Since September, five young festivalgoers have died after attending music festivals in NSW. The most recent fatality occurred earlier this month, when 19-year-old Alex Ross-King collapsed and died at the Sydney edition of FOMO festival.
From March, festival organisers will have to apply for specific liquor licences, similar to those required for pubs and clubs. A panel of experts will decide whether to approve each application before a license can be issued.
It is thought that representatives from NSW Health, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance, and Liquor and Gaming NSW will comprise the panel. The licences will be targeted to the risks that each event entails.
“Events with a poor track record and heightened risk will face greater oversight from authorities”
The new regulations come following recommendations of an expert panel which was formed to advise the government on how to keep festivalgoers safe, following two deaths at Defqon.1 festival in September.
The licensing laws place heightened responsibility on festival organisers to ensure the safety of patrons, placing the onus on them to assess and proactively manage safety risks.
“Festival organisers will need to ensure their events meet high safety standards,” says minister for liquor, gaming and racing Paul Toole. “Events with a poor track record and heightened risk will face greater oversight from authorities.”
Until the new scheme comes into effect in March, interim measures at festivals will include “chill-out zones” staffed by medical professionals to help those who feel unwell. Obligatory free water stations will also be introduced.
Australian Festival Association: Drug policy “endangering lives”
The newly formed Australian Festival Association (AFA) has written to government urging urgent drug policy reform following the deaths of several Australian festivalgoers over the Christmas period.
Suspected drug-related fatalities over the festive period – mid-summer in Australia, and the height of its festival season – include a 19-year-old man, Callum Brosnan, at Knockout Games of Destiny in Sydney, a 20-year-old man at Beyond the Valley in Larnder, near Melbourne, and a 22-year-old man, Joshua Tam, at Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley.
Despite the deaths – and a pill testing trial at last year’s Groovin the Moo that was hailed an “overwhelming success” by harm-reduction campaigners – the government of New South Wales (NSW), which contains Sydney and the Glenworth Valley, has once again rejected industry calls for permitting drug testing at live music events.
“The government position is quite clear on pill testing: We oppose the use of illegal drugs at these festivals,” NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts told reporters in Sydney. “We appeal to you, just enjoy the festival and do it without taking drugs.”
“Encouraging drug abstinence instead of education is out-of-touch, proven to be ineffective and unnecessarily risking lives”
In an open letter to Australia’s six state premiers and two chief ministers, the AFA today warned that by continuing to “encourag[e] drug abstinence instead of education”, the country’s decision-makers are endangering festivalgoers’ lives.
The AFA, which launched in December, represents Australian festival producers, promoters, organisers and operators. Its 2019 board is Jessica Ducrou (Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival, Download), Adelle Robinson (Listen Out, Listen In, Field Day, Harbourlife, Curve Ball), Danny Rogers (Laneway), Matthew Lazarus-Hall (CMC Rocks) and Rod Little (Groovin the Moo, the Plot).
Read the AFA’s open letter in full below.
We are deeply saddened to hear of the deaths at Australian festivals during the recent holiday period and our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. Our thoughts are also with the medical, festival, production, security and law enforcement staff who were on the ground when these tragedies occurred.
Drug use is a complex issue and the current policies and strategies of our state and territory governments are needlessly endangering lives. Be it abuse of prescription medications, MDMA use at festivals or the devastating impact of ice [methamphetamine] on some of our regional communities, drug use is a national health issue that impacts many Australian families. We need to better understand drug use behaviour, identify significant intervention points, better coordinate between regulators, health, police, businesses and broader communities, and make sure that the health and safety of Australians is the ultimate priority.
As festival promoters, the last thing we want is someone to be hurt under our care. We need to be able to legally implement preventative strategies, not just reactive ones, and include any harm minimization [sic] tools that are available. We believe, and have evidence to support, that a combination of robust harm minimization strategies will help Australians make safer choices and reduce the harmful impacts of drug use on festival-goers and the broader community. This necessarily involves a collaborative, multi-layered approach of drug education, peer-to-peer support, pill-testing, health services and policing.
We ask state and territory governments across Australia to:
- Establish on-going state-based Music Festival Regulation Roundtables to ensure better relationships between regulators, medical experts, promoters, emergency service providers and law enforcement
- Utilise the significant experience and expertise of the Australian Festivals Association (AFA) – the national festivals representative body – and appoint AFA members to Regulation Roundtables across the states and territories
- Work with health, festival and drug experts to develop pill-testing trials
- Adopt an evidence-based, health-focused approach to drug regulation and commission further research into recreational drug use
- Collaborate to convene a national drug summit to allow in-depth, meaningful, expert-led discussion around drug use
We do not believe that pill-testing is the only answer. But it is a crucial part of a broader harm reduction strategy that prioritises people’s health and safety, over criminality or laws. Encouraging drug abstinence instead of education is out-of-touch, proven to be ineffective and unnecessarily risking lives. Young people deserve better. Older people deserve better. Families deserve better.
We implore Premier Berejiklian, Premier Andrews, Premier Marshall, Premier McGowan, Premier Palaszczuk, Premier Hodgman, Chief Minister Gunner and Chief Minister Barr to be open to better ideas and to work with experts on making festivals safer for everyone.