A Zero Tolerance Drug Policy Doesn't Mean Zero Deaths

Two people died at Defqon.1 festival in Sydney over the weekend. Three others are in critical condition, and another 700 had to seek medical assistance during the festival. This has to stop, and it won’t stop through zero tolerance.
September 18, 2018, 1:37am
VICE / Maddison Connaughton

Noisey and VICE do not condone illicit drug use. This article reflects the experience of the author.

I’ve been taking MDMA and other illicit drugs in various forms since I was about 16. I’m now 21, and not a particularly hectic partier; I’d probably say that I take illicit drugs once or twice a month, but it could be even less than that. I’ve never had a bad experience, but I understand that one day, I might. I could even have a fatal interaction with an illicit drug. But I’m aware of those risks. I take steps to minimize them, so I’m generally pretty fine with my casual usage of recreational drugs.

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With that in mind, I took a pill on Saturday. I split a green Heineken with a friend, and we had a good time. We might not have been so lucky: on the same night, a 21-year-old and a 23-year-old died of suspected overdoses at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival. Three others are in critical condition in hospital. After the festival, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian used the deaths as a way to urge young people not to take drugs. “There is no such thing as a safe drug,” she told media, “and unfortunately when young people think there is, it has tragic consequences.” I probably won’t heed Premier Berejiklian’s warning. Despite the deaths at Defqon, despite knowing all the risks of illicit drug taking, I will probably––almost definitely––continue to use drugs recreationally for the foreseeable future. As I said: I’ve never had a bad experience, and, to be honest, I feel that I probably won’t any time soon.

Part of that is because I’m fortunate enough to have some form of loose education around drug taking. As a teenager, I learned––from older siblings, cousins, friends––what to take and what not to take, what not to mix. I learned that caps are usually better than pills, but if I have a pill, I should probably check PillReport first. I learned that Red Bull will just induce anxiety, to always carry chewing gum, to always drink water and that if I have a crisis, paramedics aren’t narcs. A litany of simple tips that have probably stopped me from having a terrible experience at one point or another. Learning this, passively, didn’t encourage me to take party drugs, but it definitely helped me out when I decided to. Now, I know how to take care of myself and others. So, for me, drug taking is a risk, but a calculated one––akin, I guess, to getting on a plane or going on a rollercoaster; potentially fatal, but probably not.

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I’m willing to bet that the two young people who died didn’t have the same benefit of experience that I had. I’m willing to bet on that because they were aged 21 and 23––right around the average age when Australians first try ecstasy––and if you haven’t benefited from some form of education around drug taking, then you probably don’t know what not to take, or how to take care of yourself.

The key reason for that is because unless you have people to tell you how to stay safe while on drugs, you’re left to work it out yourself. The government’s policy on recreational drug use is, according to Berejiklian, “zero tolerance”, so there are no official resources on what to do in crisis. That’s why Berejiklian’s rhetoric annoys me so much; there might not be such a thing as an entirely “safe” drug, but there are ways to find saf er, or at least less harmful, drugs. Fear-mongering does nothing but tell young people that it’s (legally) safer to go it alone than to seek help or consider options. A zero tolerance policy never helped anyone, and asking young people not to take drugs isn’t just a simple matter––you can look to the rates of teen pregnancy in states where abstinence-only sex ed is taught for proof of that.

Berejiklian obviously didn’t see the correlation between her zero tolerance mindset and drug safety. She announced swiftly and decisively that Defqon was to blame. "This is an unsafe event and I'll be doing everything I can to make sure it never happens again,” she told media. “I never want to see this event held in Sydney or NSW ever again […] Young lives were lost for no reason."

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Defqon might have been an unsafe event, but then again, every music festival is an “unsafe event”. There’s alcohol in large quantities, speakers that could send you deaf, and thousands upon thousands of young people. Even if illicit drugs didn’t exist, you’d still find yourself with issues. But illicit drugs do exist, and so Defqon, like pretty much all legal festivals in Australia, tries to be as safe as possible. It follows all the government’s guidelines for event safety. For one, it, like the Premier, has a zero tolerance drug policy. A note on the festival’s website makes this clear for attendees, before alerting them to the health risks and legal risks of carrying illicit drugs. It also advises that drug detection dogs (‘sniffer dogs’), security guards, and police have a presence at the festival.

This is the kind of harm-prevention that authorities officially sanction, and Defqon followed the rules to the letter. If that, in the NSW Premier’s eyes, isn’t enough safety, then maybe every festival in New South Wales should be shut down. (It would be a loss for The Culture, but, as we know, the NSW government has no problem with cultural losses when showy, hardline policy is involved.) Or maybe saying that Defqon was unsafe is just easier than admitting that despite following the letter of the law as closely as possible, despite adopting a zero tolerance policy that’s government sanctioned, kids still wound up dead. When asked whether pill testing could potentially make festivals safer for attendees, Berejiklian bristled. “Anyone who advocates pill-testing is giving the green light to drugs,” she responded.

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If Berejiklian believes that pill testing isn’t the way to make “unsafe” festivals like Defqon safer, then I wonder what she believes the safe way forward is. Does she believe that we need more police or sniffer dogs on festival grounds? If so, I wonder whether she’s seen the recent SA Police statistics that indicate sniffer dogs are accurate less than 15 percent of the time or whether she knows that festival attendees have fatally overdosed because they panicked upon seeing police and sniffer dogs, and tried to consume their whole stash. In cases like that, heavy policing actively reduced safety at festivals.

Despite what Berejiklian might think, pill testing doesn’t really give a green light to drugs. In fact, if you went to a drug testing booth in one of the many European cities that allows pill testing, for example, the people testing your drugs would never tell you that any amount of illicit drug is safe. Instead, they’d tell you exactly what your drugs were made of, and how the components of the drugs would affect you. If a potentially fatality-inducing substance was in the mix, they’d tell you that, too. A drug counsellor would be on-site to walk you through how to take care of yourself if you did end up deciding to take the drugs. And there would be a bin there in the event that you decided to ditch your drugs. In other words, there would be a lot of helpful resources for casual drug users. But no green lights.

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Many people go through this process casually before they take pills anyway––checking on PillReport or asking around about which ones are adulterated, which are safer, which are stronger and weaker. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s all that’s available. Making proper pharmacists and drug counsellors accessible would just make this system easier.

Of course, pill testing doesn’t provide red lights, either. Definitionally, voluntary pill testing is an opt-in service, and there will always be some festival attendees who don’t want to opt in. Nobody advocating for pill testing is saying that on-site testing could prevent all drug-related deaths. But there’s certainly proof that it can prevent some: at Australia’s first and only pill testing trial earlier this year, two lethal substances were found among the 85 samples tested. Without that pill testing booth, someone else might be dead. The two 20-somethings who died at Defqon might not have gotten their drugs tested on-site if they had the option, but if they did, maybe they would have left the festival unscathed. Maybe there would have been less hospital visits, too, and maybe a few less than 700 people would have needed to seek medical attention on-site. Unlike sniffer dogs, pill testing is actually effective; UK festival Boomtown has seen reductions in drug-related death and illness since it began allowing testing on site.

What Berejiklian and many others who are anti-testing don’t seem to understand––or, as it may be, don’t seem ready to admit––is that young people probably do understand that there’s no such thing as a “safe” drug. I know, anecdotally, that most people (that I know, at least) take illicit substances knowing the potential risks. The solution for politicians, then, is clear: to sanction pill testing, and help to minimise those risks. Or face the alternative: another 20-something body in the morgue that doesn’t have to be there.

Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Twitter.