Madonna King: Ignoring the crisis at our doorstep doesn’t come at our own peril, but that of our kids

Recent overdose deaths at music festivals have prompted fresh calls for pill testing.

Recent overdose deaths at music festivals have prompted fresh calls for pill testing. Photo: AAP

Today, in Australia, five people will die from drug use. And this year, if it’s like any other, that number will climb to more than 2200.

It’s a sobering statistic none of us want to believe, and not much political capital is attached to fixing it either.

And that’s why the move by Queensland this week to commit to pill testing – both at fixed sites and at pop-up booths at music festivals – should be applauded and adopted in every other state.

While the ACT conducts pill tests and it is understood Victoria has at least sought advice around the issue, NSW has publicly warned pill testing is not a quick fix, and other states have not entertained any change of laws.

But the impetus to do that should be strong.

Just in the past month, 11 people in NSW who believed they were using cocaine or methamphetamine experienced an opioid overdose, a 23-year-old Melbourne music festival patron died of a suspected drug overdose and in Canberra, a counterfeit diet pill bought online was found to contain methamphetamine.

Illicit drugs might be dangerous, but not knowing their make-up is proving even more dangerous. 

About 1300 new drugs have been found across the globe in the past 15 years and Australia is not immune – with pill tests only a few weeks ago identifying three never-before-seen drugs. 

Add to that the fact that pill testing in both Canberra and the UK has found the results of between 20-43 per cent of drug tests were not what festival attendees expected, and the maths is pretty compelling.

Putting our head in the sand when our children march off half-dressed to a music festival doesn’t help any of us.

And that has been the problem with this debate, to date.

Older voters, many of them parents, have fought any political attempts to introduce testing; it has been seen as opening a door to legalising hard drugs or turning a blind eye to illicit drug use.

But as the tally of young people losing their lives has grown, so has the determination to increasing the safety – and knowledge – of those using drugs.

Younger people, largely, see it very differently to many of their parents – explaining it in a similar way to underage drinking.

This analogy is clever. Parents might warn their 16- or 17-year-old about the dangers of drinking and encourage them to wait until they are legally able to drink. 

But that doesn’t mean they’ll acquiesce to their parents’ advice, and most parents still warn their teens never to accept a drink they did not see poured.

We might not like the fact that pills are being popped at music festivals,  but it’s unlikely we are able to stop young people from experimenting or using drugs.

We can, however, mute the number of deaths that come from pills that can kill.

The impetus for Queensland to act comes on the fifth anniversary of the death of two young adults in a tent at the annual Rabbits Eat Lettuce music festival near Warwick, a country town about two hours’ drive south-west of Brisbane.

Suitably, the mobile drug-testing facility will be offered first, at the same festival, in a few weeks’ time. Fixed sites will also soon be announced.

But back in 2019, when a lethal cocktail of drugs were found to be responsible for the two deaths, change would not be entertained – by the public or the politicians. Even advocates were concerned about police involvement at any testing sites.

Now it’s different. Police will be in attendance but have made it both clear and public that their sole interest is in ensuring that motorists leaving the festival are not affected by drugs or alcohol. 

The change in political heart, at least in Queensland, has been driven by the rising number of deaths.

“I want to be clear that these services are all about harm minimisation,’’ Queensland’s Health Minister Shannon Fentiman said this week. “We don’t want people ending up in our emergency departments – or worse, losing their life.’’

It’s hard to disagree with that argument.

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