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.
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Fellowes, Drape, Measham on the case for drug testing
The Loop director Fiona Measham, Broadwick Live’s Jon Drape and Secret Garden Party promoter Freddie Fellowes joined AFEM CEO Mark Lawrence at IMS Ibiza last month to discuss drug testing at festivals and clubs.
‘The Case for Drug Testing at Events, presented by The Loop’, on day two of IMS, saw the two festival bosses – both of whom have led the way in implementing the Loop’s multi-agency safety testing (MAST) at their events – talk with Measham and Lawrence about their experience of front-of-house pill testing, and its effectiveness in reducing the harm associated with drug use, with Fellowes describing the growth of MAST as “the first meaningful change in harm-reduction policy that I’ve seen in our industry” in 20 years.
Calling for change, Measham, also professor of criminology at Durham University, said in order to avoid future drug fatalities at festivals, “we need to is actually encourage a more healthy relationship with drugs”.
Watch the panel in full, exclusively on IQ, above.
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First Oz pill testing trial “an overwhelming success”
Australia’s first-ever front-of-house festival drugs testing, at Groovin the Moo in Canberra in April, has been hailed an “overwhelming success” by organisers, paving the way for its roll-out at future events across the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – and, hope campaigners, the country as a whole.
In addition to recommending further pill testing in the ACT, a report by Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) – which oversaw the Groovin the Moo (GTM) trial – says the success of the pilot scheme shows that pill testing could, and should, be introduced “as a harm-reduction service across Australia”.
“The pilot demonstrated that such an intervention is possible, and that people are willing to use the service, despite the limitations arising from the tight timelines, inauspicious physical infrastructure and the lack of dissemination strategies on site during the festival,” it reads.
“The development of a uniquely Australian pill-testing service model that involves peers, health professionals and law-enforcement officials working together to reduce harm among drug users needs to be prioritised and supported by all Australian governments.”
“As the first trial to be conducted in Australia, I know that other jurisdictions will be looking on with interest”
A total of 129 people used the STA-SAFE facility, with analysis turning up “a range of substances, ranging from lactose to high-purity MDMA, cocaine and ketamine”, as well as “one dangerous substance that has led to hospitalisations in New Zealand and deaths in the US”.
Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, one of the select number of UK festivals where front-of-house pill testing is offered, told IQ in 2017 drug testing is a “no-brainer”, as around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content. At Secret Garden Party 2017, meanwhile, in addition to high-strength MDMA, drug tests discovered ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA.
ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris, who backed the GTM pilot, comments: “The trial was a success and had shown there was a demand for the service. This will assist to better understand how pill testing may help reduce the harms of illicit drug use at festivals and will inform next steps and future drug policy.
“As the first trial to be conducted in Australia, I know that other jurisdictions will be looking on with interest to see the results of the evaluation. We look forward to releasing the evaluation once complete.”
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Mixed reactions as GTM pill testing to go ahead
After almost two years of false starts, Australia’s first-ever pill testing trial will go ahead at Groovin the Moo in Canberra this Sunday.
Promoter Cattleyard Productions revealed earlier this month that while the trial had been cleared by local authorities, including police, it remained concerned over any potential legal issues. “Some of the complexities that we are working through involve clarification around patron protection and legal ramifications for those who participate,” said a spokesperson. “We are also working through guidelines relating to insurances and liability.”
However, those legal hurdles have now been cleared, and pill-testing consortium Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) will run the service at this weekend’s event at the University of Canberra, according to ABC.
A recent review of Australian drug policy, ‘Worth the test?’, concluded pill testing – which is in force at festivals in the UK, Austria, Spain and the Netherlands – could be a vital part of wider harm reduction strategy. “It is important to focus on prevention, public awareness campaigns and education to shift cultural attitudes, so that use of party drugs is identified as a public health issue rather than a criminal one,” writes report author Andrew Groves.
“When people have more information about what it is in the pill, many of them may choose not to take it”
The announcement has met with a mixed reaction in Australia, with the Liberal Party’s Jeremy Hanson, shadow attorney-general for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), saying the move will encourage drug use. “It’s essentially saying we’re the pill-popping centre of Australia, come to Canberra because this is where you can get your drugs tested,” he says.
However, ACT health minister Meeghan Fitzharris, who backs the trial, says the service is designed to minimise harm rather than encourage drug-taking. “When people have more information available to them about what it is in the pill that they may choose to take, many of them may choose not to take it,” Fitzharris comments – a position borne out by similar testing in Britain.
Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, one of the festivals where pill testing is offered, told IQ in 2017 drug testing is a “no-brainer”, as around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content.
As GTM mulls legality, researcher says pill testing could save lives
On-site festival pill testing, of the kind common in Austria, the Netherlands and, most recently, Britain, could reduce the harm caused by drug use and potentially save festivalgoers’ lives, according to major new review of drug policy out of Australia.
The publication of ‘“Worth the test?” Pragmatism, pill testing and drug policy in Australia’, published in the Harm Reduction Journal today and shared under embargo with IQ, comes as Cattleyard Promotions – the promoter behind Groovin the Moo, one of Australia’s biggest music festivals – weighs up whether to introduce pill testing at the 2018 events, in what would be the first full-scale trial down under.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a potential trial at the Canberra festival, which takes place on 29 April, has the backing of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government and police force, but promoters remain concerned over legal issues – despite pill-testing consortium Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) offering legal indemnity to Cattleyard if it allows drug testing.
A spokeswoman for Cattleyard says the promoter needs clarification on who is legally liable for the trial. “As pill testing has never been trialled before in Australia, the decision to implement it is not solely ours, as there are multiple stakeholders involved in undertaking the exercise,” she says.
“Some of the complexities that we are working through involve clarification around patron protection and legal ramifications for those who participate. We are also working through guidelines relating to insurances and liability.”
Two teenagers, including a 15-year-old girl, overdosed on drugs at Groovin the Moo 2016.
“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality”
In ‘Worth the test?’, Andrew Groves of Deakin University in Victoria examines evidence in support of pill testing to reduce fatalities caused by party drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, at festivals, clubs and raves. He compares Australia’s “inadequate” current approach, which centres on prevention, with attitudes in other countries, such as Portugal, Austria and the Netherlands, where the focus is on harm reduction.
Dr Groves reveals that Austrian initiative chEckiT has seen two-thirds of users binning their drugs when they discovered their content, while “a similar project in the Netherlands found that pill testing did not increase the use of party drugs, which is often perceived as a risk of such initiatives”.
“Although considered radical at the time, these measures have been effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, and problems for drug users and the wider community,” says Dr Groves. “The examples evaluated in this study support the idea that party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing, rather than criminal justice responses.”
In the UK, meanwhile, pill-testing charity The Loop is already working with a number of festivals, including Kendal Calling and Boomtown Fair, and recently called for the introduction of similar ‘drug-testing hubs’ in city centres as a means of stemming a rise in drug-related deaths.
“The most surprising finding of our research is that the evidence has clearly identified the inadequacy of existing punitive, zero-tolerance strategies across several countries,” continues Dr Groves, “and yet such policies often remain embedded in government legislative action. While we still need further evaluation of how best to implement pill testing and other harm reduction initiatives, the evidence suggests that they are useful and there is widespread support from the community and practitioners in the field.
“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality.”
“Party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing”
Jon Drape of festival production outfit Ground Control told IQ in 2016 that around 25% of those who tested their drugs with the Loop at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party opted to bin them after discovering their content. There were 80 “substances of concern” discovered at SGP 2016, including extremely high-strength ecstasy, ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA, he explained.
Previous attempts to get pill testing off the ground in Australia have been unsuccessful. While harm-reduction activist Will Tregoning said in August 2016 there would be pill testing at a festival in Australia in 2017, the festival in question – Spilt Milk – pulled out with six weeks to go, citing “insufficient” documentation from STA-SAFE.
ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris said the Canberra government is doing “everything [it] can to ensure pill testing goes ahead at Groovin the Moo”. “The ACT government is being proactive and working with stakeholders to address any questions or concerns so we can see this happen,” she adds, “and I hope we have a final outcome soon.”
Dr Groves stresses that although pill testing cannot eliminate the harms of drug use, and cannot be used as a stand-alone solution, it could be a vital part of wider harm reduction strategy. “We are calling for further collaboration between law enforcement and healthcare providers to ensure that they take appropriate action to reduce the harm caused by drugs,” he concludes. “It is important to focus on prevention, public awareness campaigns and education to shift cultural attitudes, so that use of party drugs is identified as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.”
Royal Blood, Public Service Broadcasting, Alex Lahey, Duke Dumont, Lady Leshurr, Portugal the Man, Sampa the Great and Claptone are among the performers at Groovin the Moo 2018, which kicks off in Wayville, South Australia, on 27 April and wraps up in Bunbury on 12 May.
Time to Test: The Loop to bring drug testing to city centres
The Loop, the charity behind the pill-testing services at several UK music festivals, has called for the introduction of ‘regional drug-testing hubs’ in British cities to stem the alarming rise in the number of drug-related deaths.
Night Lives: Reducing Drug-Related Harms in the Night-Time Economy, a new report by the Loop, Volteface, Durham University and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, highlights the urgent need to reduce the harms associated with club drug use – revealing that though drug usage rates have remained broadly consistent, hospital admissions have spiked sharply, with drug-related deaths due to ecstasy and cocaine at their highest since records began.
It also recommends the adoption of a series of “bold yet practical initiatives” to combat the issue, including:
- Drug safety testing services in night-time districts
- An independent information service to reduce drug-related harm
- Drugs awareness training for night-time staff
- The adoption of the UK festival drug policy of the ‘3 Ps’ – prevent, pursue, protect – in licensed venues
Report co-author Dr Henry Fisher, health and science policy director at Volteface, comments: “While the UK’s drug market has rapidly evolved in recent years, measures taken to address harms have failed to keep pace and, as a result, our young people, public services and much-loved venues are bearing the brunt of this failure. Everyone we spoke to for the report agrees more needs to be done to reduce drug harms.
“This report provides innovative solutions to tackle them, such as drug safety testing services. It is now up to councils, clubs and police to work together to implement them.”
“Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric”
The Loop’s first festival partner was Secret Garden Party, in 2016, with Kendal Calling following shortly after. It also offered front-of-house testing at Boomtown Fair in 2017, and the organisation says it will work with “an increased number of UK festivals this summer”.
To help fund the launch of the scheme, along with the “growing demand” for its services at festivals, the Loop has launched a crowdfunding campaign, Time to Test, which aims to raise £50,000 by 15 June.
“Night-time venues are at the centre of British music culture, making our cities exciting and vibrant places to live while contributing over £66 billion to the UK economy,” says Jeff Smith MP, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. “Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric around drugs and out-dated licensing laws. This report offers credible and tested solutions to help protect people attending events.
“I hope that venues, local authorities and the government will work together to make these recommendations a reality.”
To donate to the Time to Test campaign, visit crowd.science/campaigns/time-to-test.
Plan to take drugs at a festival? Do it in Europe…
New research in the US has laid bare the huge variations in the MDMA content of ecstasy pills in circulation internationally, with European festivalgoers having access to the purest pills – and Australians the least.
The research, shared with IQ by drug rehabilitation service American Addiction Centers (AAC), will further fuel calls for widespread festival pill testing, revealing that ecstasy pills in Europe contain, on average, 67.1% MDMA, compared to 16% in the lowest-ranked territory, Australia.
The average pill in North America is 54.2% MDMA – a figure that drops to 35% in the US specifically and 25% in Canada. In Asia, meanwhile, it is 52.9% MDMA, and in Oceania as a whole 47.3%.
The impurity of the ecstasy sold at music festivals has been blamed for many recent fatalities, including those at Time Warp in Argentina, Closeup Forever Summer in the Philippines and Stereosonic in Australia (where promoter Richie McNeill slammed festivalgoers for “poisoning themselves with these cheap, shitty drugs”).
One solution is pill testing – where festivalgoers are allowed to submit drugs for testing to establish their content before consumption – which is already a common practice in the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, and has recently found support from several UK events.
Pill testing has also been proposed in Australia, although authorities have been reluctant to allow the practice, lest it be seen as a “tacit” acceptance of drug use at festivals – despite AAC’s data suggesting Australians are most at risk from adulterated ecstasy.
Also of concern to harm-reduction advocates is that drug users have become accustomed to said cheap, shitty drugs, meaning they are at risk of overdose when they take the same amount of pure MDMA; for example, of the type growing in prevalence in Europe.
AAC warns that without a way to test the content of pills, “people have no way to tell what they are taking just by looking at it. New chemical components are being laced with these drugs every year, and the results can be fatal.”
Kendal Calling, one of the UK festivals to invite drugs charity The Loop to facilitate pill testing – properly ‘multi-agency safety testing’ (MAST) – in 2016, repeated the scheme at this summer’s event, finding concrete, malaria medication and insecticide in pills submitted for analysis.
The Loop’s Fiona Measham says her organisation does not condone drug use, but is focused on harm reduction: “We accept that some people will get drugs on site and some people will be planning to take them,” she says, “so what we’re doing is trying to address any potential health problems.
“This is a focus on public health rather than on criminal justice.”
Support for festival drug testing grows in UK
Respected UK charity the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has called for drug-testing facilities, such as those trialled at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party last summer, to be made standard at all music festivals “where drug use is common”.
In a new report, Drug safety testing at festivals and night clubs, released this morning, RSPH says the move, “which is backed by 95% of festival-goers, [would] help minimise the risk of serious health harm as a result of recreational drug use”.
Secret Garden Party became last July became the first British 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.
RSPH’s own data suggests a similar figure of almost one in five (18%).
Drug testing at both festivals was undertaken in partnership with nonprofit The Loop, which will also introduce the testing – officially ‘multi-agency safety testing’ (MAST) – at several Festival Republic events this summer, including Reading and Leeds.
“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances”
MAST, or a local variant thereof, is already commonplace in continental Europe, including the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Efforts to introduce drug testing in Australia have been frustrated by local government and police, with festival promoters in New South Wales told they could face prosecution for drug supply.
According to RSPH, the need for pill testing at festivals has become more acute with the rise in strength of the average ecstasy pill. As reported by IQ last May, MDMA use is on the rise across Europe, with a simultaneous increase in the availability of high-MDMA pills and powdered and crystal forms of the drug.
“Given that a large degree of health harm associated with ‘club drugs’ stems from user ignorance of the exact strength and content of pills and powders of uncertain provenance, any measures that increase our knowledge base can be expected to have a positive effect on reducing harm – especially if the provision of such information creates an opportunity to impart information on safer behaviours and risk reduction to the key target population,” reads the RSPH report.
“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, then they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances, and so are less likely to have an adverse reaction or overdose as a result.”
MAST, therefore, says RSPH, is a “pragmatic harm reduction measure” which should “become a standard feature of places where drug use is prevalent, such as city-centre nightlife areas and festivals.”
“Truly heartbreaking”: Another Aus fest fatality
Less than a week after it was revealed a limited form of pill testing is to be introduced at several music festivals in New South Wales (NSW), one person lost their life and another suffered a serious overdose at a NSW festival on Saturday.
A 22-year-old man was taken to hospital (where NSW police say he is in a “serious but stable condition”) after suffering a suspected overdose at the EarthCore dance music festival in western Sydney, and the Australian Associated Press reports a 25-year-old woman was found dead, although the cause of her death is still undetermined.
In a press statement, the NSW Police Force says it is “concerned by the number of drug detections” at Earthcore, where it arrested nine people for drug-related offences.
“The majority of festivalgoers were well behaved and supported police efforts in making the event safer,” says superintendent Peter Lennon. “However, a small number choose to break the law and attempt to bring illegal drugs into the event, which is disappointing.
“The majority of festivalgoers were well behaved and supported police efforts in making the event safer”
“We are frustrated with the actions of several festival attendees, who despite all the warnings attempted to bring illegal drugs into the event.”
It is unclear whether there was any form of drug testing in place at Earthcore. IQ has contacted the Ted Noffs Foundation, the operator of the planned pill-testing programme, for clarification.
The festival attracted approximately 2,100 people to Western Sydney Parklands from noon to 11pm, say police.
The event’s promoter, Earthcore Pty Ltd, describes the death as “truly heartbreaking news” but “strongly advise[s] that making wild speculations and inferences during this very difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased will add more stress and difficulties to a very sad and unfortunate situation”. It adds it will make a formal statement following the coroner’s report.
Limited pill testing roll-out in New South Wales
Despite European-style pill testing having been outlawed by the New South Wales (NSW) government, thousands of kits will be handed out at Sydney music festivals this summer in a bid to minimise drug-related deaths – albeit in a less effective, do-it-yourself form campaigners warn will be unable to detect potentially dangerous cutting agents.
Just One Life – a joint venture between the Ted Noffs Foundation, Harm Reduction Australia, the Australian Drug Observatory, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia and DanceWize – will distribute the kits, which are legal to possess, at NSW’s summer festivals.
Harm-reduction activists had originally pushed had originally pushed for professionally run, clinical drug testing – of the kind in force in Britain, Austria, Spain and the Netherlands – which can detect adulterants and confirm exact dose levels of particular substances. However, reports The Sydney Morning Herald, four festival promoters “strongly in favour” of ‘proper’ pill testing were told by the government and police that, should they allow the practice, it would be seen as a “tacit admission” of drug use at their events.
“These kits give no information about purity … the government has ignored the evidence and expertise available to them”
As a result, the NSW drug testing kits will only be able to confirm if pills contain a particular drug (for example, MDMA).
“These kits give no information about purity,” notable pill-testing advocate David Caldicott tells the Herald, “and one of the biggest problems we have in this summer’s market is very high-dose MDMA”.
Two teenagers suffered overdoses from suspected high-dose MDMA at Groovin’ the Moo in Maitland, NSW, in April.
“It is disappointing,” adds Caldicott. “There is a far better way we could do this. But they [the government] have ignored the evidence and expertise available to them.”