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Why Are People Still Dying at Music Festivals?

Some believe "drug checking" stations, which test drugs for harmful substances, set up outside festivals could help curb the deaths.

Six people have died taking drugs at festivals since November last year. Image via

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia

This year's Australian music festival season has begun badly. It started on November 28 when pharmacist Sylva Choi died after drinking MDMA dissolved in water at Stereosonic in Sydney. Then, only one week later at Adelaide's Stereosonic, Stefan Woodward was rushed to the hospital after taking ecstasy, only to die hours later. These cases bring the number of drug-related deaths at festivals to a total of six nationally, since November last year.


So what the hell is going on? With so much information on mitigating drug risks for users, event organizers, and law enforcement, why are people still dying?

A recent study based on data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed that per capita Australian adults are leading the world in ecstasy consumption. But in European nations like the Netherlands, where party drugs are notoriously popular, similar stories don't seem so common.

In the case of 19-year-old Stefan Woodward, the police put the incident down to a dodgy batch of pills. This scenario has been of concern for many years. Individuals believe they're purchasing drugs containing MDMA, but instead they contain another psychoactive substance, such as PMA, which is similar in effect, but much more toxic and potentially harmful.

However, according to Dr. David Caldicott, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the Australian National University, contaminated drugs aren't the risk we might think. "The problem of contamination, I certainly don't think is the problem that it was ten years ago," he said. "But the problem of purity is more significant than it has ever been." He's concerned that MDMA pills of very high dosage are being produced in southwestern China and turning up on the Australian market.

And then there's the Australian tendency to binge, whether that be on alcohol or illicit drugs. "We know that in Australia there's a great enthusiasm for double and triple dropping pills," Caldicott said and explained that if individuals take multiple pills of a high dose, they "can be in a world of pain really quickly."


Unharm members in Sydney calling for a ban on festival sniffer dogs. Image via Unharm

But there's another aspect of the festival scene that leads to dangerous drug taking, and that's law enforcement. In 2013 James Munro died after taking three pills at the Defqon 1 festival in Sydney. The 23-year-old learned there were drug detection dogs at the entrance and took all his drugs at once. This practice, known as panic dumping, has become more prevalent amongst festival goers along with cavity hides.

A government office worker whom we'll call Holly has been attending music festivals since 2009. The 27-year-old resident of Sydney's north shore said her friends are amongst those using cavity hides to avoid police detection. "I don't go into a festival without my drugs wrapped in a condom inside me," Holly said and explained that one of her friends once swallowed three pills he'd been hiding in his mouth when stopped by police to be strip-searched. "By the time he got into the festival and was able to go into the bathrooms to throw up, it had been such a long time that his stomach acid had started disintegrating their packaging."

Will Tregoning, director of harm reduction group Unharm, told VICE that the presence of sniffer dogs at festivals has stopped very few people from taking illicit drugs, while huge amounts of these substances continue to make their way in. "But there is clear evidence that the practices people have adopted in response to the presence of drug detection dogs have been overwhelmingly negative, to the point that they put themselves at greater risk of overdose and medical complications," he said.


In light of all this, what can be done to prevent deaths at music festivals? Caldicott believes the answer is drug checking. On arriving at a festival, punters can have their drugs tested for harmful substances and potentially lethal doses. These services have been utilized successfully in European nations for decades and the European Union has actually produced best practice guidelines.

As Caldicott sees it, the main shift that occurs with the use of drug checking services is that "people change their behavior at the point of consumption." If they get a bad pill, they choose not to take it. "If you do it over a prolonged period of time at the same event, we find that the attitude toward drugs change," he added.

And on the legal side, Tregoning explained that "we don't have to wait for drug use to be decriminalized to make music festivals safer." Legislation could enable drug checking services to operate in a similar way to Sydney's Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, where it's not a crime to possess or self-administer drugs. He points out that in NSW "there's a formal police protocol" where they won't "prosecute people for drug consumer offenses in the vicinity of registered needle and syringe providers." A similar method could be utilized for drug checking services.

In 2012, Adriana Buccianti tragically lost her 34-year-old son Daniel at Rainbow Serpent festival in Victoria. She now works with the organizers of Rainbow Serpent advising revelers to look after themselves and consider their safety when it comes to drug use. Two weeks ago, prompted by the death of 25-year-old Sylvia Choi at Stereosonic, she started an online petition calling on politicians to introduce drug checking services. So far it's gained over 35,000 signatures.

Buccianti believes it's time for the government to allow young people to access these life-saving services without fear of arrest. Last month, Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale spoke out in favor of drug checking services, but Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently said the government would not support them. "[Testing services] are not pro-drugs. No one's saying taking drugs is a safe way," Buccianti explained. "What we're saying is we need to protect the children."

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