In the wake of the overdose deaths at the Defqon.1 electronic dance music festival in Penrith this last weekend, it’s worth taking some time to consider what solutions exist to prevent such deaths and related injuries in the future. The NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has decided that banning the festival is the only answer.
And, of course she has. This is the government that responded to drunken assault deaths by shutting down Sydney, killing the night life and destroying the local economy.
First an admission, I am someone who has smoked, snorted, swallowed, or otherwise ingested every single illicit pill, powder, capsule, tab, or botanical that has ever been put in front of me. I have sought them out and been offered plenty. I have bought and sold. I have made lifelong friends through these pursuits, and had my eyes opened to a range of societal and cultural problems. I have had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations of my life while completely out of my mind.
I have been doing this since I was nineteen, starting by taking ecstasy on a night out at a pub in Katoomba, about an hour west of Penrith. It has never been a full time pursuit for me, I have never felt addicted, and I thought that smoking ice was a bit ‘meh’. I have successfully held down jobs, gaining promotions and running genuine retail businesses for others at a profit.
And I have never regretted my choice to take illegal drugs.
The first time I took ecstasy, I didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t peer pressure, or some shady deal. A mate asked if I took drugs, in my head I was like, sure, why not, responded enthusiastically and so he gave me the pill. That night, while I was high, experiencing new sensations, feeling like I was drunk, but wide awake, I considered it an intellectual pursuit. I was watching myself and the world around me through the eyes of a drug user. It was intense.
I laughed so hard, talked for hours, I drank plenty and found myself spending hours staring at myself in the mirror once I was home, my mind blown by how good I felt. After all, I’d bought into the anti-drug message in school.
I had never smoked weed, I judged those who did so. I had been told to be petrified of the monsters lurking in the shadows, seeking to force you to become a client, hooked on their gear, slowly losing your mind as everyone you know abandons you. I knew that a single dose of ecstasy was enough to kill you, because that was what happened to anyone who took it, and all of the dangerous chemicals that were mixed in to create that high were put there by bikers, criminals, and lowlifes who were agents of chaos.
Yet, I survived.
However, as this last weekend showed, my survival could have been by chance. I have taken my fair share of illicit substances at music festivals, and found it relatively easy to smuggle drugs past the dogs.
I’ve danced on stage with Iggy Pop after eating a whole lot of speed, I’ve smoked a joint watching the John Butler Trio go wild, and LSD made Muse taste like purple. Illegal drugs and other mind-altering substances can change the experience of music, perceptions are twisted and it can literally change your life. Listening to Rage Against the Machine while on acid turned me into an atheist.
The thing is, through all of this, I knew the dangers. I was very aware of the risks, the potential for harm and addiction, the likelihood of becoming a junkie, and I did it anyway. And now, as a man in his 30s who continues casual recreational drug use, I know that my story is not unique. Most people are introduced to drugs by someone they know. It’s never like it is in those old “just say no” PSAs, pressuring someone to be “cool” or threatening them if they don’t join in. It’s casually passing a joint, or offering a pill in the car park of the local pub. Most casual drug users are aware of the associated, propagandised risks that come with the territory. The threat of arrest, the danger of a dodgy pill, accidentally taking too much. It is well known, to even the most intellectual drug user, and yet, it hasn’t stopped us.
Because taking these drugs make us feel so fucking good.
Music and drug use are intertwined, going back decades, if not centuries. Without the influence of drugs we wouldn’t have jazz, rock, electronica, hip-hop, even country music – which has more references to drug use than most other music genres. The Beatles never would have become the greatest band of all time, heavy metal never would have emerged from a subculture, and pop music would have remained the exclusive domain of teenage girls. Music and culture as we know it today never would have existed without drug use, especially with the huge shift that came out of the acid wave in the late 1960s.
With regard to Defqon.1, I spent the bulk of my twenties living in and around Penrith, so I am very familiar with it, and it is really not my cup of tea. But, I wouldn’t want it to be cancelled, because most of the people in attendance are just there to have a good time; and while I can’t speak for the two people who died, as a drug user, I wouldn’t want a festival cancelled if I accidentally overdosed.
What I would want is free pill testing at festivals to prevent others from ingesting hazardous materials, and I would want drug sniffer dogs banned, as their mere presence can lead people to “dump” their entire stash, ingesting all of the drugs they have on them in one go, out of fear of being caught, which can be fatal.
There is also growing evidence that police drug sniffer dogs are almost completely ineffective at indicating illegal drug possession, and when the NSW Police response to the pill testing at Groovin the Moo; despite what it showed – with potentially fatal drugs being discarded by users; is to increase the presence of dogs at festivals and abuse their power.
Few should forget the police banning people at Above and Beyond from entering if a dog indicated the presence of drugs, even if nothing was found after a strip search. Think about it rationally, you’ve never used drugs in your life, you’re just wanting to go into a music festival, but a dog (with a failure rate of 60 – 80%) indicates the presence of drugs, and you’re forced to remove all of your clothes, while the police go through your possessions, then demand that you allow them to access your phone.
Following all of this, they find nothing, and then still ban you from entering the festival you bought a ticket for, because a dog decided you had drugs on you. A dog that might be hungry, overwhelmed, tired, following the lead of its handler, or smelling your dog. And so you’re treated like a criminal, when all you have done is have the misfortune to be near an animal that the police force has given the powers of a judge, and you’re also banned from being at Sydney Olympic Park for the next 6 months.
It’s ridiculous, and the police have zero interest in changing their tactics, describing pill testing as “a dangerous scenario” and “a quality-assurance model for drug dealers”. Except that the dangerous scenario, in reality, is forcing young people to run the gauntlet at festivals, either dumping everything before entering instead of risking arrest; or blindly taking a drug that could potentially kill them, because of dodgy manufacturing or ingredients. The notion of quality assurance is bizarre, as the pill testing doesn’t tell someone if the drug is safe, it simply details the ingredients.
As I have mentioned above, and as others have discovered, young people are going to take drugs at music festivals – deterrents, dogs, and death are not going to stop them; and a zero tolerance approach is going to keep bodies piling up.
We also have to look at the fact that for the last nine years, drug crime statistics have been massively inflated after a “mistake” led to double counting of more than 80,000 drug offences. In turn, this led to claims of an epidemic in New South Wales, with millions of dollars directed towards the war on drugs, and new justifications given for the need to add extra drug dogs at festivals, and the development of new roadside drug testing.
Regarding the mobile drug testing, it too has proved ineffective, as it has detected trace amounts of drugs like cannabis in they system, up to two weeks after taking it. Sober drivers are being fined for something they did weeks ago, and in some cases because of passive ingestion, with their neighbour or housemate being the smoker.
It would be like being fined for drink driving on New Years Eve, when the last drink you had was at Christmas. Again, a ridiculous notion.
Clearly there is a need to review how we test for sobriety in drivers, especially as the Western world; following the lead of nations like Portugal, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States; moves into a new age of drug legislation, with a progressive approach taken when considering medicinal benefits of drugs like cannabis, and the societal impact of decriminalisation – treating addiction as a medical problem, instead of a criminal act.
Portugal, especially, has found incredible benefits as a result of decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001, partnered with a cultural change, as citizens were educated about the reality of addiction. Drug users were no longer regarded as junkies, but with sympathy and empathy; individuals were not punished for hard drug use, but they were treated by social workers, psychiatrists, and doctors; and the nation saw massive drops in overdoses, problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates.
This is something Australia should be striving towards, instead of banning festivals and pill testing. Sydney has seen the long-term benefits of safe injecting rooms and needle exchanges, and Melbourne is starting to experience the same, it is past time the rest of the country saw the additional benefits of a cultural shift in how society view drug use and treatment options.
Different drugs can be detected in the system at different rates, many long after the effects have worn off. As such, road side sobriety testing should reflect current state and capacity of an individual, instead of a state-mandated prescriptive ban past a set limit. We all know someone who can barely walk after one drink, and someone who could perform brain surgery after five drinks. The BAC breathalyser, while broadly effective, could have supplementary tests that provide a much better representation of an individuals ability to operate a vehicle or machinery.
One idea could be a roadside reaction test, similar to the hazard perception test taken by those on a provisional licence, to see how capable a driver is at responding to changes in conditions and their ability to recognise dangerous conditions. An iPad would be enough to measure this on the side of the road, and it would be a much better indication of whether someone under the influence of alcohol or other drugs should be driving, better than testing for a drug they took weeks ago, at any rate.
More broadly, as a society, Australia needs to have these necessary conversations, and quickly move towards decriminalisation of drug use and low level possession, and even legalise low impact drugs like marijuana. And while daily use of cannabis probably isn’t the best idea, studies have shown that semi-regular use, with a vaporiser, can actually have positive life effects. Plus, American states that have legalised marijuana have seen a significant drop in opioid prescriptions; and while correlation does not imply causation, this impact on the opioid crisis is one of the most significant side-effects of legal weed.
Prohibition has never worked, all it does is make millionaires of violent criminals, and criminals of any who might seek an escape from the problems in their life. It kills someone seeking a cheap thrill, instead of providing a safe environment for them to pursue these behaviours.
Liquor licensing has allowed the government to regulate this dangerous drug, creating safe spaces for it to be ingested, and laws for how to proceed if someone misbehaves under the influence of this drug. It has generated billions of dollars in revenue for the government this year alone, and it has created thousands of jobs.
The worst things I have ever done have been when I was drinking alcohol, and all studies show that regular alcohol use is more damaging than regular use of marijuana. Yet, alcohol is legal and is encouraged, with endless advertising across all facets of society. I have had much better experiences when imbibing substances the police would arrest me for possessing, than I have in situations the government would endorse, such as drinking or gambling, and as we all know, the NSW government is bending over backwards to keep the casinos running, even as they force others out of business.
The expert panel now being put together by Gladys Berejiklian as a further response to the deaths at Defqon.1 will not be allowed to consider pill testing as a solution. In all likelihood, the solution proposed to drug-related deaths will be similar to the solution to alcohol-related violence – increased penalties, shutting-down festivals, and banning individuals from locations. Because this is the NSW Liberal Government, and logic is anathema to their ideological pursuits.
There were more than 180 police, including plain-clothed officers and drug detection dogs in attendance at Defqon.1; 300 people were searched, with only 69 people found to be in possession of drugs – a failure rate of 77%; and the organisers worked hard with police, paying for them to be there, to maintain the festival’s zero-tolerance drug policy. Yet the government would still blame the festival for the deaths of these two individuals.
Banning festivals, making festivals unsafe places for those who might choose to take drugs, will send the problem underground. Remote area raves, secret factory parties, bush doofs, and other events hidden away from prying eyes thrive when the police and governments try to crack down on legal events. The problem is, these events don’t have dedicated medical staff, hydration stations, paramedics on call, should something go wrong, such as a bad batch causing mass overdoses; and the lack of police means assaults and sex crimes can go unreported.
And for those who say, too bad, they made their choices when they took drugs, I say, fuck you. It’s called empathy, young people make mistakes, and any society is only as strong as its weakest member. We are supposed to lift others up, not laugh at their misfortune should they suffer from a choice you didn’t make. What, you’ve never made a mistake? You’re so righteous, judging these individuals, and I’ve definitely been where you are, but I realised that I too have made mistakes and put myself in dangerous situations, which is why I won’t attack someone for an injury they’ve suffered as a result of their choices.
The social safety net is designed to protect people like that, it’s why we have Medicare. The only way you could ever be excused for judging these people, would be if you have never failed to protect yourself against any and all dangers, and have never been a burden on society.
You’ve never spent a second in the company of a smoker, you wouldn’t even know what cigarette smoke smells like. You have used sunscreen every single second that you’ve ever spent outside. You’ve never eaten anything processed or grown using pesticides. You’ve never touched alcohol, drank coffee, or used painkillers. You’ve never been around anything that might burn fossil fuels for power, like a car. You’ve never ridden a bicycle, because if you fell off, you could be injured – but at the same time, you exercise regularly to remain fit. You’ve never received more benefits from the government, under Medicare, public education, Centrelink, or police/fire/ambulance/SES, than you have paid in taxes – and I’m talking absolute costs. And you’ve never received charity or assistance from anyone. If anyone has given you a gift, you have gone out of your way to ensure that you repaid the cost of that gift.
Then, and only then, can you complain about individuals choosing to take drugs.
Most young Australians support, or would use, pill testing at music festivals; and pill-testing tents allow direct contact with a community not usually prone to reaching out to drug services until they hit rock bottom, and too many die before that. Pill testing can change behaviours, it can influence black market forces, with dangerous filling and cutting agents abandoned when the batch in question is found to be hazardous.
But more than that, if we were to move towards decriminalisation of drug use and low-level possession, or even full legalisation, it would deal a powerful blow to organised crime – on a scale not seen since the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution, repealing prohibition.
While it may appear that I have an agenda in advocating for relaxation of drug laws, as my testimonies demonstrate, it would make no material difference to me personally, one way or the other. Like thousands, if not millions, of other Australians, I will continue to use and abuse illegal drugs, despite the warnings, threats, and punishments for doing so.
I’m not advocating for myself, I’m fighting for those who might also suffer death or injury from illegal drug use, and hoping that someone in a position to make real change would consider what I have written here when they propose solutions to drug-related deaths.
I’m not an idiot, I’m very aware of the broader societal issues that can come from drug use, I’ve almost lost two of my closest friends to drugs, and I would demand any sweeping change to drug legislation be a part of a raft of changes, reminiscent of the modernisation of Australia that came with the Whitlam government.
We desperately need it, and over the next few months I will use my blog to propose a series of radical reforms that might shape Australia for the 21st century.