The Best-Laid Plans

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The weather’s already started to heat up, and summer’s on its way. Woo-hoo! That means cocktails, beers and BBQ’s by the pool, long days at the beach and a bunch of other mindless summer merriment.

And speaking of mindless, it also means the start of a whole new round of summer music festivals.

Photo by Eric Ward, Unsplash​

For most, that all adds up to one heck of a good time. But unfortunately, for far too many it can also be a recipe for disaster.

The tragic truth is, summer after summer we hear stories on the news about young partygoers, sound hounds and other silly season revelers, overdosing on dangerous drugs at music festivals all over the country. In February this year, more than 20 people were hospitalised after overdosing at a Melbourne music festival, and countless others are treated for overdoses at various music festivals every year. At one festival in 2015 two young people died from the ill-effects of drug use, and another 20 were hospitalised. Every year government and festival organisers pump more and more police and sniffer dogs into every venue, and beef up their security everywhere they can, but the problem just won’t seem to go away.

Now calls are being made to introduce an initiative that has seen a major decrease in drug overdoses in Europe since its relatively recent introduction in the northern hemisphere. Australian doctors and drug experts have urged government to introduce supervised facilities at music festivals to allow patrons to test, free of charge and free of culpability, illicit drugs they have brought to the event, so that they can be certain exactly what it is they’re thinking of ingesting. It’s a radically different approach to dealing with the drug problem in that, at one level at least, it runs directly contrary to our traditional policies of prohibition. But, as is so often the case, necessity may be the mother of invention.

Many in the halls of power are beginning to wonder whether, if tolerance is the only way to turn the tragic statistics around, it may be worth a shot.

Last month the ACT announced that it would be the first government in Australia to allow free testing of dangerous drugs at the music festival Spilt Milk. Although the details were always a bit scant, the general proposal was that festival patrons would be able to simply head to a designated tent facility at the festival venue, and ask for their drugs to be tested. Each sample tested would then be given a unique code accurately recording the test results, for ready reference by medical and other emergency service staff in the event anyone ran into trouble. It was hoped the test result certificate would ensure that festival patrons were better informed about what they were about to take, and perhaps even discourage them from taking it. It would also allow emergency services personnel to know instantly and exactly what might been ingested, so that they could dispense more expeditious and effective treatment if that became necessary.

Of course none of this meant the ACT was legalising dangerous drugs, or condoning their use in any way. The proposed pragmatic initiative was aimed purely and simply at reducing casualties.

Unfortunately, however, it seems the best laid-plans of mice and men have now gone inexplicably astray. Although approved by the ACT government after months of negotiations with the Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE), the Spilt Milk pill-testing tent has now been cancelled. While the various agencies argue over who’s to blame, the Acting Minister for Health, Shane Rattenbury, told journalists this week the ACT Government still believes it’s “a valuable harm minimisation measure” and that police “recognise it as a harm minimisation strategy,” and Spilt Milk organisers are hoping the pill testing proposal tent will get a start at the Festival in 2018.

In the meantime, let’s hope this won’t be another Summer of Tragedy for Australia’s music festivals.

Natasha Dawson


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