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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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Two deaths, 70 drug charges after Sydney festivals

Two men in their 20s died and a further 10 people were taken to hospital after attending the Knockout Outdoor festival at Giants Stadium, Sydney Showground.

The victims, aged 26 and 21, died in hospital after being treated by paramedics following the 53,000-cap electronic music event, which took place on Saturday (30 September). Promoted by HSU Events, it featured acts such as Head Hunterz, D-Block & S-Te-Fan, Wasted Penguinz and Darren Styles.

The Guardian reports that police are investigating the cause of both deaths, but were unable to confirm if the men had taken drugs.

“It’s not specifically being treated as a suspected drug overdose,” said Det Supt Simon Glasser, who suggested the warm weather could have been a factor.

“We look at all avenues. Anything could have happened,” he added. “This shows that people can die at music festivals. Drugs can have some horrible consequences. When you mix that with the heat of yesterday, it’s an added risk factor that can cause adverse effects.

“It’s horrible. These events are events to go and enjoy some music and have a lot of fun with mates, so it’s tragic people have lost their lives.”

More than 70 people were charged with drug offences during high-visibility police operations across Knockout Outdoor and Listen Up

Just last week, NSW Health issued a warning to the public of a high-dose MDMA tablet found to contain more than four times the average dose of other MDMA tablets in recent circulation.

More than 70 people were charged with drug offences during high-visibility police operations across Knockout Outdoor and Listen Up, which was held at Centennial Park on the same day. The weekend marked the start of Sydney’s summer festival season.

NSW police say 27 people have been charged with possessing prohibited drug at Knockout, while four people – two men and two women – were charged with supply prohibited drug.

Meanwhile, at the 27,500-cap Listen Up, which hosted acts including Ice Spice, Arrdee, Four Tet and Lil Uzi Vert, 85 people were detected in possession of prohibited drugs, resulting in 37 field court attendance notices, 29 criminal infringement notices and 19 cannabis cautions.

Additionally, eight people – five men and three women – were charged with supply prohibited drug, while two people were arrested for assaulting police, one for wilful and obscene exposure and another for breach of bail.

 


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Increase in spiking reported at Danish festival

Danish heavy metal festival Copenhell says it is “deeply saddened” by a worrying increase in drug spiking at this year’s event.

VIP Booking reports that organisers were made aware of up to 10 people who unknowingly had substances slipped into their drinks in the festival’s large party tent ‘Biergarten’, adding the trend has also been detected across the wider nightlife scene.

Festival booker and director Jeppe Nissen tells Kulturmonitor the event will “take measures to combat” the development moving forward.

“We are deeply saddened by this and urge everyone to contact us directly if they have had any experiences with drugging or possess any information that can help identify the perpetrators,” says Nissen.

The 35,000-cap Copenhell took place in Copenhagen from 14-17 June and featured acts such as Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Pantera and Slipknot.

“We have not previously recorded any incidents of drugging at Copenhell, and it has not been a problem that we specifically addressed or warned our audience about,” adds Nissen. “But when we see seven to 10 cases, unfortunately, we cannot say that we have done enough in terms of prevention. It is definitely a problem we will address and take measures to combat.”

“We’re delighted to join forces on our mission to stamp out spiking with the Association of Independent Festivals”

Other Danish festivals such as Smukfest are calling for further dialogue on the subject, while trade body Dansk Live has vowed to address the issue.

Elsewhere, the UK’s Association of Independent Festival (AIF) has announced a partnership with LGBT+ anti-abuse charity Galop and anti-spiking charity Stamp Out Spiking to bolster its Safer Spaces Charter.

Stamp Out Spiking was established to tackle increasing incidents of spiking across the UK and worldwide. The charity exists to highlight the dangers of spiking, and offer effective and practical solutions to keep people safe in pubs, clubs, house parties, festivals and beyond.

“We’re delighted to join forces on our mission to stamp out spiking with the Association of Independent Festivals,” says Dawn Dines, CEO and founder of Stamp Out Spiking. “Working together will make such a difference in safeguarding men and women at festivals across the UK. Highlighting how these cowardly crimes are taking place, sharing key information on the typical signs and symptoms, will make it so much more difficult for perpetrators and ultimately safeguard festival goers.”

The partnerships have contributed to new Safer Spaces resources that directly addresses the needs of LGBT+ survivors of abuse, and the broader issue of spiking.

“It’s important for AIF to work towards creating safer and more inclusive spaces for everyone, and work with those who provide specialised support,” says AIF membership & operations coordinator Phoebe Rodwell-Carson. “We hope to build on this with as many festival organisers as possible, supporting them in upholding their duty of care towards music fans and festival staff, whilst ensuring we remain inclusive and open to all.”

 


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One dead, 12 hospitalised after dance festival

One man died from a suspected drug overdose and 12 people required hospital treatment following a dance music festival in Australia.

Police conducted a high-visibility police operation at Transmission Music Festival, which was held at Sydney Showground on Saturday (11 February). The 18,000-cap event was headlined by Armin van Buuren and featured acts such as AVAO, Jeffrey Sutorius, Will Atkinson and Xijaro & Pitch.

Officers were called to Bankstown Hospital at about 3am yesterday to investigate the circumstances of the death of a 26-year-old man. Police were told the man – who had earlier attended the festival – presented at the hospital just before 1.30am for a suspected drug overdose.

More than 130 people were treated by medical professionals at the venue, with numerous complaints suspected to relate to drug use and heat exhaustion, with at least 12 people transported to hospitals for further treatment relating to drug use, with seven of those patients requiring intubation.

Six men have been charged with drug supply offences and an investigation is underway

Six men have been charged with drug supply offences and an investigation is underway.

NSW Police say the event was determined a high-risk event under the Music Festivals Act 2019, and as such, police were assisted by security officers, NSW Ambulance paramedics and medical professionals to provide a safe and secure environment.

During the operation, police arrested six men – aged between 19 and 33 – who were detected in possession of MDMA. A 23-year-old man was charged with supplying a prohibited drug after he was allegedly found in possession of 253 MDMA tablets, while a 21-year-old man was charged with supplying a prohibited drug and possessing a prohibited drug after he was allegedly found in possession of 149 MDMA tablets.

The other four men were issued court attendance notices for supply prohibited drug and are due to appear at court at a later date.

 


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Strip searches at SITG may be “unjustifiable”

A public inquiry into police conduct at last year’s Splendour in the Grass festival in Australia has found that 143 strip searches were carried out over the three-day event, including on seven minors.

According to the inquiry, illegal items were found on 12 of the 143 who were strip searched.

The New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) opened the four-day inquiry to investigate the potentially unlawful strip search of a 16-year-old girl at the 2018 festival.

Police regulations in NSW state that a parent, guardian or support person must be present whenever an individual under the age of 18 is strip searched.

The inquiry found that the girl was one of six minors to be strip searched at the festival without a parent, guardian, or other supervising adult present.

It was also revealed that staff including shopkeepers and bar workers were also strip searched at the event. None were found with illegal items.

According to the inquiry, illegal items were found on 12 of the 143 who were strip-searched

Under NSW law, police can only carry out field strip searches if the “urgency and seriousness of the situation requires it”.

When questioned at the inquiry, a senior constable who performed 19 such searches at Splendour in the Grass said they could not “think of any” circumstance which would necessitate a strip search at a music festival.

Splendour in the Grass promoter Secret Sounds tells IQ that the team is “learning of these searches along with the general public”. The promoter is unable to comment further as the inquiry is ongoing.

The New South Wales festival celebrated record ticket sales for its 2019 event, which took place from 19 to 21 July at its site in North Byron Bay Parklands with performances from Tame Impala, Childish Gambino and the Lumineers.

Splendour in the Grass and fellow Secret Sounds-promoted festival Falls are part of a coalition of events threatening to leave NSW, after the government reintroduced “unworkable” festival legislation.

 


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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.

 


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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.

 

 


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Study: 1 in 4 people attend festivals sober

Streaming platform Cloud Cover Music has examined the changes in music festival experiences across the United States over the last few decades in a new survey asking respondents about sobriety, drug intake, sex, memorable acts and life-changing experiences.

The study finds that 24% of those surveyed reported being sober at music festivals. Alcohol consumption at festivals has been higher in the past decade than previously, rising from 64% in the noughties to 71%.

The survey finds that festivalgoers in the 1980s were more likely to consume marijuana or hard drugs, witness violence and rioting, have sex and witness nudity at a festival than they are now. 83% of attendees in that same decade described festivals as life-changing, compared to 53% in the 90s, 62% in the noughties and 65% now.

Burning Man consistently proved to be the least sober event, with 45% of festivalgoers saying they drank alcohol and consumed a mixture of drugs at the event

82% of respondents stated that Woodstock 1969 was life-changing, making it the most impactful music festival on the survey. However, the festival had only 17 survey respondents. Ultra Music Festival was voted the second most life-changing music festival with 78%, followed by Electric Daisy Carnival (75%) and Burning man (73%).

Burning Man consistently proved to be the least sober event, with 45% of festivalgoers saying they drank alcohol and consumed a mixture of drugs at the event. The results coincide with secondary ticketer TickPick’s survey of drug consumption at festivals last year. In contrast, 72% of respondents say they did not consume any substances at Warped Tour.

Across genres and festivals, Red Hot Chili Peppers were ranked the most memorable act at music festivals, with Jane’s Addiction, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Tiësto also making the top five.

The full study can be read here.

 


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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.

However, the government has stated that it will not introduce pill testing, despite calls from the Australian Festival Association, and family and friends of the deceased.

 


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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:

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.

 


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