In the past two years, six young people have died as a result of drug-related incidents at New South Wales music festivals—prompting an extensive inquiry by the deputy state coroner into what, exactly, is going wrong. Last month, coroner Harriet Grahame issued her findings, along with what seemed to be a clear and definitive recommendation to the Berejiklian government: introduce pill testing “as soon as possible.” Citing “compelling” evidence, Grahame countered Gladys Berejiklian’s “just say no” messaging by espousing the benefits of drug checking facilities and suggesting that they could be instrumental in saving people’s lives.
"The evidence arising from this inquest clearly indicates there is much that can be done to prevent MDMA deaths," Grahame said. "There are practical solutions to some of the issues identified."
Yesterday, Gladys finally responded to the coroner’s recommendations: by announcing that the NSW government would roll out… some bins. According to the state they’re known as “drug amnesty bins”, and they’ll hypothetically allow people to dispose of illicit substances without being asked any questions.
“I want to give the community our assurance as a government that we’re doing everything we can to keep young people safe,” Berejiklian told reporters this morning. “So today the NSW government is responding to the deputy coroner’s recommendations… [and] a new initiative that we will be adopting as part of those recommendations is to have amnesty bins available at music festivals moving forward.
“We believe amnesty bins are a good way to increase safety,” she added, “so that young people, if they see police or if they see other activity, don’t panic, and have the opportunity without any questions asked to throw those pills into the bin.”
Now this would be fine, in some parallel universe where drug-taking teens think and act like middle-aged Coalition voters. But in order to genuinely think that this is “a good way to increase safety,” one needs to make a few fairly misguided assumptions about people who use drugs at music festivals.
First and foremost: what’s been lacking all these years were just a few specially labelled bins where people could throw away their ecstasy. What the NSW government seems to be overlooking here is the fact that people bring pills to music festivals for the express purpose of consuming them. They are not running the gauntlet of drug checks just so they can toss their pingers in a bin on the other side. And therefore, putting a few extra bins in front of the gates seems unlikely to help.
Further to that, there is something a bit disingenuous and sinister about the way Berejiklian insists that “if you see police, don’t panic”—given this entire strategy seems more or less based upon police intimidation. If people haven’t discarded their drugs by the time they get to the festival gates, then the only thing that will persuade them to do so at the last minute is a heavy police and sniffer dog presence: more specifically, the likelihood that a dog might sit down next to them and prompt a strip search. And given NSW Police’s recent track record—eg. commissioner Mick Fuller saying that young people should have “a little bit of fear” of police and allegations that officers may have unlawfully strip-searched as many as 25 young people earlier this year—the deliberate use of intimidation as a harm reduction strategy seems irrefutable and disturbing.
And finally, this new bin-reliant strategy assumes that education from experts is in fact not the answer. One of the greatest benefits of onsite pill testing is that it creates a space where young people can have an open conversation with professionals about the contents of their drugs, what might happen when they take them, and ways to mitigate risk. Scaring people into throwing their pills away “without any questions asked” does nothing to start a conversation about drug-taking behaviour and harm reduction—and it seems unlikely that the people who do throw them out will be any less inclined to take drugs in other environments, at other times.
It is worth mentioning, though, that Berejiklian’s announcement was pretty scarce on details. So to get a better understanding of what we could be looking at here, VICE sent some questions to Dr Amy Peacock—a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales’ National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC)—who explained things further.
VICE: Hi Amy. First of all, what are drug amnesty bins?
Dr Amy Peacock: Drug amnesty bins have different purposes in different countries and states. It is still unclear exactly what drug amnesty bins would be like in NSW from Wednesday’s announcement. However, in places like the UK, Switzerland, and Western Australia, drug amnesty bins are places people can dispose of their drugs without fear of prosecution.
How would they work?
Again, it is difficult to say how drug amnesty bins would work in NSW from Wednesday’s announcement. In fact they work in different ways all around the world. For instance, at the Boomtown festival in the UK, amnesty bins are placed at the entrance, and drugs that have been confiscated or voluntarily handed over are disposed of in these bins. The drugs inside are then tested for harmful substances, and if found, festival goers are alerted to potentially lethal substances through an app.
Other festivals that have amnesty bins often have them inside drug testing tents or facilities. After festivalgoers test their drugs, they have the option to either consume them or place them inside the amnesty bin.
Will they be effective at reducing drug-related harm? (And is anyone actually going to use them?)
Our latest Ecstasy and Related Drugs report—a survey of 797 people mainly in their 20s who are regular consumers of ecstasy—demonstrates that 45 percent of participants had ever tested their drugs. Young people want information on the drugs they are consuming and want to reduce potential harms. [But] this [amnesty bin] initiative does not increase access to, and awareness of, harm reduction services within music festivals. Many people attending music festivals are not aware of harm reduction services or messaging, and this needs to be a priority in terms of ensuring these services are available and that people are aware of their presence and feel safe/comfortable in accessing them.
What’s supposed to motivate people to throw their drugs in bins at the last minute? Police presence? Sniffer dogs? And if that’s the case, then doesn’t this strategy only work as part of a fear campaign?
Fear of prosecution is being addressed by the amnesty bins, which is only a part of the wider issue. Awareness, drug information, and harm reduction services need to be at the forefront of decision making.
What happens to the bins and their contents after the event?
This is another thing yet to be announced.
So there you have it: the NSW premier’s carefully considered solution to young people dying at music festivals, her grand unveiling, turns out to be a few glorified wheelie bins and a rehashing of the same old “just say no” approach.
Gladys Berejiklian continues to claim that “as a government we’re doing everything we can to keep young people safe.” But here’s what they’re not doing: they’re not implementing pill testing; they’re not phasing out sniffer dogs; they’re not expanding funding to peer led education programs or making any meaningful attempt to educate young people on drug taking behaviour. They’re not even listening to their own experts at this stage, apparently.
But hey, at least we have a few more bins—along with that omnipresent “fear of prosecution”—to keep young people safe.