Words || Sarah Basford
There are over two thousand students dancing violently to the tunes curated by the DJ on stage. Hues of purple, blue and red lights filter through the moving bodies illuminating the darkness between them. It is around 9pm and Macquarie University’s RE:Conception festival is attempting a comeback. The grassy fields by the lake have replaced their extensive duck population with sweaty students and the night sky’s stars are in full bloom. The fences are gone and as far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a sniffer dog in sight. I can’t help but think to myself, something has changed.
Rewind to 2014. It was mid-Spring and Conception Day was well underway, as was tradition. The six-foot-plus temporary fences had been erected around the grassed-area near the lake. It looked more like a construction site than a music festival. The police presence was felt with sniffer dogs and vans to help combat any perceived trouble. There were scores of wasted, happy youth dressed in Hawaiian shirts and colourful skirts waiting in line to be searched before entering the enclosed space. This wasn’t an unusual scene by any means; this was, and still is, typical of the festival culture in Australia. It’s the kind of environment where the authorities dictate that drug-use and binge-drinking are the worst vices of our generation and the best methods to combat this are by firstly, employing a large police force, secondly, raising the price of alcoholic drinks and finally, containing the punters in a confined, monitored space. The natural reaction of festival-goers to this strict response is to drink and take drugs away from the vigilant eyes of the police, feign sobriety and enjoy the good vibes once they’ve successfully entered the festival. This is what is regularly referred to as ‘pre-drinking’ or ‘pregaming’ and this is where a lot of trouble has started.
The most common pill taken by festival-goers usually consists of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as MDMA , ecstasy or Molly. I say ‘usually’ intentionally because it’s hard to really know what the pill consists of. Stories of bad pills containing concrete or rat poison seem to pop-up a lot. The media regularly reports on how festivals like Stereosonic are swarming with illicit drugs, but the statistics are telling a different story.
The last National Drug and Health Survey in 2013 showed that MDMA use was actually on the decline despite a general perception that it’s on the contrary. It’s estimated that nearly 11 per cent of the population have tried MDMA at least once in their lives and that the average age for trying the drug is around 18.2 years. More alarmingly, a Victorian study showed that 78 per cent of MDMA-related incidents resulted in hospitalisation in 2013-4. This high figure could indicate that the pills had a higher potency than expected or were cut with more harmful substances. The ambiguity of pill-taking means that there is a considerable risk every time a user places that pill in their mouth.
The dark side of this reality has a body count. In September 2013, a 23-year old male, James Munro, died of a pill overdose. The Defqon.1 festival was held in Penrith and saw a heavy police presence of over 100 officers. He had taken three pills which he believed were MDMA. His father believes that he took these all at once to avoid getting intercepted by the numerous sniffer dogs they had at the festival. A few years later, Sylvia Choi was at the popular music festival, Stereosonic, when she took some MDMA around 5pm. She was pronounced dead just five hours later at Concord Hospital. Unfortunately, these stories highlight just two of the fatal cases in recent years.
To better understand why people take this risk, I spoke with two regular MDMA-users. Clementine* regularly attends music festivals and is not averse to having a good, but safe time. But why does she take drugs at festivals? “My inclination is to say ‘why not?’” she jokes. “It’s cheaper than buying a lot of alcohol especially at festivals. Also, they’re easier to get into festivals than your own drinks.” This response is quite common from other drug users. There’s also the idea that it’s a cleaner high, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, followed by a softer hangover.
Joaquín** also uses MDMA, but will only take capsules or ‘caps’. He explains that these are generally a more pure form of MDMA and due to the clear capsule, you can see exactly what’s in it. “Over time you get a sense of its taste, its colour, its consistency,” he explains. “With pressed pills, it’s far easier to disguise what’s actually in them.”
In terms of the police presence at festivals, Clementine thinks it’s ridiculous. “It’s common knowledge that everyone’s doing it. Even with the [prevention] methods in place, it’s still so easy,” she explains, but she’s not completely confident. “It still freaks you out and I suppose the idea that you could get caught is a slight deterrent.”
With all the discourse around pills and the questionable trust that users have in their suppliers, I asked Clementine whether she has ever been worried about taking a bad pill. “I’ve never had a bad drug experience so it’s hard for me to be deterred when you’ve only ever had a good time,” she admits. “When people have asked ‘Yeah, but what’s in the pill?’ and I just say ‘I don’t know’, it’s left me feeling a bit embarrassed because you should be able to know what’s in your pill.” Given the rise of the possible implementation of pill-testing tents in festivals around Australia, I ask her whether she’s considered taking measures to mitigate the risk of having a potentially lethal pill. “I know there are home pill-testing kits available online for about $25, but it’s not very practical for going out. Sometimes you’re buying them [the pills] at the place you’re going to, so it’s not always possible,” she explains.
Pill-testing is the process used to screen drugs for their potency and ingredients. There are different types of pill-testing kits ranging from less reliable DIY kits to the more scientifically-valid processes. They test the substance by scraping a bit of powder off and adding a reactive agent which changes colour depending on the composition of the drug. The more advanced version examines the drugs through a laser which can determine more specific elements such as purity and the type of additives. For this reason, it is controversial. Many opposers have argued that it will encourage drug use at festivals rather than deter it, however, in countries like The Netherlands, Austria and Portugal, that hasn’t been the case. The Netherlands implemented the process of pill-testing into its harm-reduction stance. It has been operating since the 1990s and operates on a system where once a bad batch has been detected, they put out a warning to others who may have bad pills.
One person who is in-favour of this approach is Will Tregoning, director of Sydney-based organisation Unharm. Will’s interest in taking a different approach to the war on drugs came after living with his family in Sydney’s King’s Cross. It was against this background that he and his co-founders came up with the idea for his organisation Unharm; an ethical non-violent approach to the war on drugs. Harm minimisation is vehemently in opposition to the NSW Government’s current approach to drug use, which consists of supply reduction, demand reduction. “The status quo, especially here in NSW is to maximise the amount of fear that people feel in relation to drugs,” he says. “The government actively promotes ignorance. They get in the way of consumers being able to understand what they’ve been sold,” Will explains calmly, but there’s a hint of anger and frustration in his voice. “Prohibition creates this unique market where there’s a huge capacity for people who are manufacturers and sellers to cause harm to consumers by mere fact of misrepresenting the product”.
Since the deaths of festival-goers at music festivals in Australia, there has been a push to implement pill-testing stations at festivals and events that have large turn-outs. Organisations like Unharm and the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation have been at the fore-front of this push and have publicised that they will begin pill-testing at festivals regardless of whether the government catches up in legislation. In March this year, NSW Premier Mike Baird again reaffirmed that he would not change his government’s position toward pill-testing, advising festival-goers not to take drugs. “That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine,” Baird explained. But something isn’t working. What appears to be glaringly obvious is that NSW is a microcosm of the world. Drugs are still being taken around the world and in NSW and Australia, deaths are continuing regardless of how many sniffer dogs are unleashed on the festival crowds.
“The alternative hasn’t been sufficiently articulated and that’s a challenge for us as activists,” Will admits. “We should be able to create a stronger counter-narrative to the narrative of prohibition.” There are a lot of challenges for the pill-testing movement, but Will complains of one of enormous influence. “There are very socially powerful organisations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” he explains. “Mainstream media rely on drug stories to generate audience interest… there’s drama and flamboyant criminality and heaps of money, power and cunning detective work.” It’s becoming more and more apparent that while the festival deaths have been a catalyst for discussion, they are still not enough enact real change.
Will spoke with Triple J’s Hack a few months back and mentioned that his organisation would be organising pill-testing at a festival in the ACT soon. I asked him about this because both the NSW and ACT Governments have been publicly opposed to this for some time.
“I can’t really talk about it,” he explains. “The NSW Government responded to the idea very negatively. They dug into the idea of increasing the police enforcement, a kind-of recommitment to failure.” He still sounds optimistic, however. “I have no doubt that we will have pill-testing in NSW in the near future, but the current government is not coming to the table. In other states… people are more willing to have much more productive conversations about the idea. It’s looking like it’s the best option to work in those jurisdictions… because that’s more likely to lead to a permanent service.”
As I walk towards the back of the RE:Conception mosh pit in the direction of the train station, I pass some drunk punters lying on a bed of grass further inducing tomorrow’s headaches with a plastic cup of cider. I don’t stare at them for longer than a second or two, but I can tell that they’ve enjoyed their evening. I imagine them at another festival, on another day, red-eyed and dancing to their favourite song; enjoying their lives for that moment. Drugs may not always be the conduit to achieve that level of enjoyment, but it’s ultimately a choice. If people are going to keep making this choice regardless of how many men in blue fervently try to block them, shouldn’t we, as friends, as humans, offer a way for them to do so in relative safety?
Different names were used to protect the anonymity of the interviewees.