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Drug-Related Deaths at Festivals Prompt an Important Coronial Inquest
The death of six young New South Wales residents has prompted a coronial inquest to scrutinise the circumstances surrounding their deaths. The tragic deaths are all said to be in relation to drug consumption at music festivals. Particular issues expected to be raised by a final report include:
- The benefits of pill-testing;
- Whether over-policing has a negative affect; and
- Whether sufficient medical support is available at festivals.
Alex Ross-King, a 19 year old girl, died from a drug overdose at the FOMO Music Festival in January. She is said to have consumed an unusually high amount of MDMA before arriving at the venue, due to fear of the police and legal consequences of being caught with any drugs.
The inquest heard that Ross-King initially consumed a fraction of a pill, but then felt pressured into consuming another two pills “apparently to avoid the risk of detection by police of carrying them into the festival.”
The young girl was taken to the medical tent where she was “critically unwell” with a high body temperature, and a rapid, irregular pulse. The medics organised for her to be transferred to Westmead Hospital for more adequate medical attention. Ten minutes later, she went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead later that night.
Alex’s passing is not an isolated incident, the inquest is examining the circumstances surrounding the six separate festival drug-related deaths. Recent news has noted “a recent substantial increase in the drug-related harms associated with a small number of music festivals” and an “unexpectedly marked increase” in the number of drug-related deaths.
Why Is There a Coronial Inquest?
The purpose of the coronial inquest is to consider ways to prevent further similar deaths, particularly through potential legal changes that allow drug-checking (pill-testing) and alter excessive police presence and intimidation. With the current strict legal punishments for drug-related offences, it is argued that something needs to be done to prevent young people from harming themselves with dangerous substances due to fear of imprisonment.
How Can Pill-Testing Help?
Festival drugs have a reputation for being extremely dangerous as they are often found to have other drugs and chemicals in them that carry lethal side effects. For example, a ‘MDMA’ pill is said to be one pill of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, with a chemical formula of C11H15NO2. If that doesn’t mean much to you, that’s because it shouldn’t.
True MDMA is a complex chemical compound that is both difficult and expensive to produce in pure form. The drugs typically sold in the black-market and to festival-goers are usually ‘cooked’ outside of professional laboratory setups. As a substitute for their lack of advanced chemistry training, and to maximise profit, cooks use unknown and dangerous chemicals as fillers.
Drugs sold as MDMA / ecstasy are often found to contain extremely low purities, or even 0% true MDMA. Rather, the drugs are usually of substances including one or multiple of the following: methamphetamine, paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA), ketamine, NBOMe or synthetic cathinones.
With street names like Death, Dr Death and Killer, PMA is large contributor to pill-related deaths in Australia and around the world. As a cheap substitute, PMA has similar yet weaker and more delayed effects to MDMA and is significantly more toxic.
What Can Pill-Testing Do?
Advocates for pill-testing argue that if testing was legally enforced at festivals around Australia, festival go-ers would be aware of what they were ingesting and be able to avoid the more dangerous variants.
While there were numerous drug related injuries and 2 drug related deaths at Defqon.1 festival in September 2018, Defqon.1 in Holland hosted over 150,000 patrons and reported no deaths or serious drug-related injuries.
Simon Coffey, the director of the Australian Defqon.1 festival, compared the relevant government policies indicated that impact the festivals in each country. The European festival has implemented drug-testing to help remove dangerous drugs from the hands of festivals go-ers. He also claims that the heavy police presence in Australia was “intimidating” for young people and likely contributes to fatalities.
Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug & Research Centre has outlined five proven ways drug-checking benefits the overall community. Firstly, pill-testing changes the black-market. Products identified as dangerous have become subjects of warning-campaigns and suppliers respond accordingly.
Further, consistent pill-testing results in increased drug purity and less harmful contaminants/substitutes over time. Testing is also shown to change behaviour of drug-consumers as they often are unaware of the dangerous chemicals in their substances. This also leads to better and more responsible drug education as visiting checking tents creates an important opportunity for medical experts to provide information and even support.
“Clients, particularly young defendants before the Courts, are often shocked when they receive Drug Analyst Certificates. There is a real misunderstanding about where illicit drugs are made, by who and what of.” – Michael Gatenby, Director of Gatenby Law
Drug-checking additionally provides data that can be used in effective drug management. Short term, data collected can enable an early-warning systems for new dangerous substances being distributed. Long term, the data helps scientists, medical professionals and law-makers analyse trends and potentially implement drug policies and procedures more effective in today’s society.
Is the Coronial Inquest Going to Change the Law?
Until the Coroner publishes his official report and recommendations, we are largely in the dark for what the next step is. It should be remembered that the inquest process is merely exploratory in nature, legal changes need to be implemented by Government.
In response to the tragic deaths frequently occurring at New South Wales festivals, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has refused to acknowledge the life-saving benefits of pill testing. She remains focussed on her position of drug abstinence – encouraging young people to not take any drugs at all.
She has then avoided questions of ‘over-policing’ and reports that excessive police presence creates dangerous situations that lead to festival go-ers consuming multiple doses at a time.
The NSW Premier continued to say she is “looking forward to receiving the recommendations that come from that inquiry and the ongoing special NSW inquiry into the drug ice.” Critics have seen this response as a clear indication Berejiklian is focussed on the wrong issues and simply misinformed.
Importantly, the politician stopped short of committing to actually implementing any of the coroner’s future recommendations.
So Where Does the Law Stand Now?
It is currently illegal for festivals (or any organisation) to provide pill-testing trials. Without legislative changes, drug-checking tents and their benefits will not be available.
Any person caught with illegal substances can be charged with an offence. Possessing a dangerous drug in New South Wales is an offence under Section 10 of the Drug Misuse and Possession Act. The maximum penalty currently is 2 years imprisonment. For other drug related charges such as supply or trafficking, the maximum penalties are higher. Contact a lawyer if you or someone you know may be charged with drug-related offences.
About the Author: Blair Carey
Blair Carey is a Criminal Law Clerk at Gatenby Criminal Lawyers. He regularly researches new laws and their potential impact for our clients. Blair assists Michael Gatenby and our expert solicitors with providing the best advice on all related matters.
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