Ever since the tragic death of a 34-year-old man at the Rainbow Serpent Music and Arts Festival in 2012, the event has been at the epicentre of the debate around pill testing, also known as drug checking.
While festival organisers have been vocal in their support of the proposal, the state government remains steadfastly opposed.
In the meantime police have expressed frustration with the festival after 40 drivers were detected with drugs in their system while driving from the 2016 event.
The issue was catapulted back into the public consciousness a fortnight ago when a bad batch of what was believed to be ecstasy killed three people and hospitalised as many as 20 along Melbourne’s Chapel Street nightclub precinct.
In the lead-up to the 2017 incarnation of the festival The Courier spoke to three people with a vested interest in the debate, including one festival-goer who plans on using illicit drugs over the weekend.
Listen to the interview here;
This weekend Richard* will join thousands of other music lovers when he makes the trek to Lexton for what has become somewhat of a pilgrimage to the Rainbow Serpent Music and Arts Festival.
Now in its 20th year of operation, the 2017 incarnation will be Richard’s second time at the festival, however he will be accompanied by veterans who have been making the trip for the best part of a decade. While Richard says the primary attraction of the festival for him is the opportunity to listen to world-class electronic music with his friends, he admits he plans on taking ecstasy while at the event.
“A part of the subculture I have found myself involved in involves drug use, mostly amphetamines, sometimes LSD, marijuana is prevalent, and of course alcohol,” Richard said.
Now in his mid-20s, Richard represents the modern face of Australian recreational drug use. Growing up in the affluent Melbourne eastern suburbs, he is university educated and holds down a full time job in his chosen field. Richard began experimenting with recreational drugs in his teenage years.
“As a young person I engaged in quite a lot of drug use because it was fun and my friends were doing it.”
Like many young people, Richard was shocked and frightened by the news from fortnight ago.He said while he accepts the inherent risks of taking an illegal substance, he believes the state government’s refusal to explore a trial of pill testing was costing both money and the safety of young people.
“It’s only as I've gotten older that I've begun to approach (drug use) with a bit more rationality, because I can see the absolute devastating effects different types of drug use have on some people. But I can see on the flip side of that coin the minimal harm and managed harm that comes with irregular, casual drug use among my generation.
“We don't live in some purist state where you’re within or outside of the law, there's plenty of big grey areas and I think drug use is one of them.”
The front-line worker
For decades Doctor David Caldicott of the emergency department at Canberra’s Calvary Hospital has advocated for a different approach to drug laws based on harm minimisation.
In recent years Dr Caldicott has been present at Rainbow Serpent to observe the safety protocols at the festival and speak about harm minimisation.
He raised eyebrows in 2016 when he along with Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Doctor Alex Wodak pledged to conduct pill testing at festivals in the ACT without government approval. Dr Caldicott said the medical world was coming close to a consensus in its support of pill testing, with bodies such as the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre leading the push.
“The opinion in the medical world is that this should be done and that the opposition is political, and not scientific,” Dr Caldicott said. “The public generally understand that telling a 20-something not to use a drug at a music festival is kind of like telling them not to have sex. Some of them will listen, some of them won't, and you really have to have a plan B.”
Dr Caldicott said if given the go-ahead, police would interact with the drug checking station in a similar fashion to Sydney’s safe injection room.
“Law enforcement has a primary role in preventing products entering a festival, but who has the best chance of persuading people not to consume those products once they're in the festival? It's not the police anymore, it's me.”
It’s now 12 years since the Australian Medical Association first called for further research to be conducted into pill testing, a phenomenon which at the time was gaining notoriety in a number of European countries.
With governments of both Labor and Liberal persuasions refusing to alter their stance, the organisation has since remained quiet on the topic.President of the Victorian branch Doctor Lorraine Baker said while the body’s call for further research would almost certainly involve on the ground trials, this did not equate to unequivocal support.
“We’re not saying introduce it full stop, we’re saying there is a role for further research because after a trial there’s always more questions which need to be answered.”
Should such research receive the go-ahead from the government, the AMA would support the establishment of a broad advisory group comprised of law enforcement as well as medical professionals.
The group would work through issues such as the legal responsibility for the drug user following the test and how police would interact with the testing area.
“We would be wrong to pretend there isn’t a significant use of illicit drugs in the community and not all those users are established addicts, however there’s huge risks for occasional use of drugs and the potential loss of drugs.” Dr Baker said.