Analysis of drug-related deaths at Australian festivals over almost a decade has shown that most could potentially have been prevented through harm reduction strategies such as pill testing.
The study, published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy, and led by Associate Professor Jennifer Schumann, from Monash University’s Department of Forensic Medicine, looked at drug-related deaths at music festivals throughout Australia between 1 July 2000 and 31 December 2019.
There were 64 deaths during the period, mostly of males aged in their mid-20s. The drug most commonly detected or reported as being used was MDMA (65.6%), followed by alcohol (46.9%) and cannabis (17.2%), with the majority of deaths being unintentional.
Drug use among music festival attendees is disproportionally high compared with the general population, notes the study, with a recent survey of 2,305 participants at 23 festivals in Victoria reporting that almost half (48%) had recently used drugs and 24% intended to take illicit drugs at the next festival.
While law enforcement-centred strategies intended to deter drug use and supply at mass gatherings have been put in place throughout Australia, Schumann says that “many have been criticised for their lack of effectiveness, with evidence suggesting that they can inadvertently increase the risk of drug harm”.
Nine people were placed in medically induced comas after suspected MDMA overdoses at Melbourne’s Hardmission Festival earlier this month, with two others hospitalised following last week’s Juicy Fest. The incidents sparked renewed calls to state governments to legalise pill testing, with many saying the scale of the overdoses highlight the urgency of the issue.
Pill testing allows the general public to submit drugs for toxicological analysis indicating the contents, dose and purity of pills and powders. The Monash-led study notes that countries such as the Netherlands have used drug checking for over three decades to understand the dynamic recreational drug market, providing toxico-surveillance data to the European Union Early Warning System as part of the Drug Information and Monitoring System.
“There are no current plans to change the policy setting on drug checking”
Although critics argue that pill testing “condones drug use or providing patrons with a false sense of security over the contents of their drugs, the study concludes that: “Research demonstrates that people who both have and never used ecstasy report being no more likely to use it at a festival when drug checking is provided than when it is not.
“The importance of drug counsellors on-site as part of the drug checking operation, to provide context to the results provided and to counsel consumers on how to avoid harm from drug use, is integral to reducing harm.”
In 2023, a coroner in Victoria became the fourth in six years to call for the introduction of pill testing after a man died from an MDMA pill at a festival last year.
Australia currently has one drug checking service in the Australian Capital Territory, with Queensland also planning to introduce the system. But Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan says there are no plans for the state to follow suit.
“There are no current plans to change the policy setting on drug checking,” Allan told ABC Melbourne radio, as per The Age. “However, I am seeking further advice from the health department about what we’re seeing over the summer period. There is a lot of expert advice that’s already in this space, and I will acknowledge, too, there’s also reports from coroners’ processes previously. So I think it’s important to examine that evidence and advice.
“I also need to have further conversations with colleagues, ministerial colleagues who have the policy responsibility for this area. So I do want to get that advice, have those discussions.”
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