Music festivals shouldn’t be death sentences. Picture: iStock
Music festivals shouldn’t be death sentences. Picture: iStock

How many young people have to die before we pill test?

THIS long weekend, tens of thousands of young people will attend one of three music festivals taking place across the country. And as a result, my Instagram is sure to be flooded with group shots and glittery bums.

But what I'm praying I don't see is news of a dead friend.

I'm 21 years old and I've lost count of how many music festivals I've been to.

I've slept in flooded tents, spewed in mosh pits, and danced with strangers until 3am. But what I haven't done is watch a friend die from a drug overdose. Though I'm terrified that it's only a matter of time until I do.

Since the tragic death of 19-year-old Alex Ross-King only weeks ago, the pill testing debate in Australia is louder and angrier than ever before.

Alex Ross-King died of a suspected drug overdose at the FOMO music festival in Parramatta. Picture: Instagram
Alex Ross-King died of a suspected drug overdose at the FOMO music festival in Parramatta. Picture: Instagram

The teenager died of a suspected MDMA overdose at Parramatta's FOMO Festival earlier this month. This makes Ross-King the state's fifth young person to have died after taking illicit drugs at a music festival since September 2018.

The NSW Coroners Court has launched an inquest into the deaths, and news media is filled with heated debate around the controversy surrounding the issue.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

But in and among the tirades of opinions from politicians, parents, and doctors, isn't it time that young people were granted a seat at the table?

Because by reaching out to my small network alone, I have spoken to the friends of those who have overdosed and died, those who were there for the pill testing trial in Canberra where two "deadly" pills were detected, even one person who took what she thought was Ketamine, only to later discover it was actually crystal meth. Had pill testing been available and she knew what she was taking, she assures me there is no way she would have taken it.

We all feel that something's gotta give.

Because wherever you land on the issue, you have to admit that a dead kid a month means that the status quo isn't working.

Those opposed to the implementation of pill testing have argued that it has the potential to send the message that taking drugs is safe, that those young people who wouldn't otherwise take them might be tempted.

In a recent opinion piece, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro asked "How many others might be tempted to dabble in drugs if NSW Labor is telling them their pill is 'safe'?"

Let me be frank, In all my years of attending music festivals, I have never taken a single pill. And I probably never will.

Abbey Lenton has lost count of the amount of festivals she has been to. Picture: Supplied
Abbey Lenton has lost count of the amount of festivals she has been to. Picture: Supplied

As a non drug-user, I can tell you that a pill testing tent will not tempt me - and it might actually discourage people who were planning to take something.

Stacey is a 22-year-old festival aficionado. She was there for the pill testing trial at Groovin The Moo in Canberra last year. She describes walking towards the tent, nervous that it was one big police trap. When she arrived though, she was greeted by a happy volunteer. "She gave us handouts of information on drugs, and there was even a board that had posts about what random/deadly substances had already been found."

What politicians don't seem to understand is that at these tents, young people aren't getting a happy-go-lucky pro-drug green light. They're getting much needed education and informed intervention.

DO WE HAVE TO DIE TO BE HEARD?

It feels like the only thing a young person can do to be heard is to die.

I was contacted by a friend of Callum Brosnan, the 19-year-old from Baulkham Hills who died from a suspected drug overdose after a festival in December last year.

The friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he feels with certainty that had the festival had pill testing, Callum was the kind of person who would have used it.

"It sucks knowing that the technology existed and it's possible that his death could've been prevented and he'd still be here today," he told me.

Video still of Callum Brosnan dancing at Knockout Games at Sydney Olympic Park shortly before he died of a drug-related overdose. Picture: Facebook
Video still of Callum Brosnan dancing at Knockout Games at Sydney Olympic Park shortly before he died of a drug-related overdose. Picture: Facebook

Last week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told Sunrise host David Koch that "pill-testing doesn't deal with overdoses. Pill-testing doesn't say to one person, 'This is gonna kill you', whereas to someone else it might be safe."

There's that word again, "safe". Politicians seem to be stuck spinning the rhetoric that the implementation of pill testing will in some way send the message to young people that taking certain drugs is "safe".

If there's one thing I can assure you, it's that in the numerous conversations I've had with my peers, none of us are under any sort of impression that pills are safe.

Young Australians are completely aware that all drug taking is harmful - our PE teachers got us that far.

19-year-old Alex Ross-King. Picture: Facebook
19-year-old Alex Ross-King. Picture: Facebook

If we take drugs, we're being reckless and we know it. But we would like to know how reckless. As 23-year-old James told me: "Kids do die from pure pills, but at least with pill testing the ones that are actually poisonous and deadly, they can be stopped."

WE SIMPLY HAVE TO DO SOMETHING

"Maybe it won't work, but we have to do something" - it's a desperate and disheartened plea, and one that's been said over and over. Because while we clearly accept that all drugs are dangerous, something politicians won't believe, the no-tolerance approach has obviously failed.

As young people, we feel that our hands are tied. That no one is listening to us.

We're not ignorant of who is doing what like most parents are. We're in the thick of it. In our minds, 'a pill popper' does not equate to a filthy delinquent. They're our friends, our siblings, our classmates - and unlike many politicians, we've rejected the idea that those who take drugs get what's coming to them.

A MESSAGE TO PARENTS

If you're a parent and you're riding on the notion that the child you've raised is above taking drugs, know this: Research by the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that by age 19, one in five young people have tried an illicit drug.

So even if it is sincerely not your kid, you can bet your ass it's their friend. It's a kid you've had at some stage around your dinner table. How can you say that they deserve to die?

The dialogue from non-young people is all too cold and removed. That is until one of us dies. Then we're given a face and a name, a family who no longer have the privilege of playing with hypotheticals anymore.

They don't turn on the television and see a face that could almost be their daughter's. Because it is their daughter's.

"Premier, please: can we have this pill testing done. It's such a small thing to do, it's not hard. Let's try and get it out there," begged Ms Ross-King's grandmother Denise Doig on Network Ten.

People are desperate for a resolution and we owe it to them to try something.

Will the implementation of pill testing make those who wouldn't otherwise do drugs do them? Nope, and I will personally testify to that.

Will pill testing stop drug deaths at music festivals? According to similar measures taken in Europe, it very well might. But even if it doesn't, surely we have to try.

Will young people go out of their way to get their pills tested? Yes! They've told me they will. If weeing on a pile of sawdust can become a festival norm, lining up to get your pills tested sure as hell can.

Now I have a question for you;

Will one death this weekend be enough to rethink the current stance on pill testing? Or will we have to wait until our 'festival deaths punch card' reaches 10?


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