22/09/2015 8:54 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Playing Russian Roulette With Pills

I've lost count of the number of parents I've spoken to over the years of working in the drug field who say that they would much rather have pill testing at music festivals than police sniffer dogs.

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IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR FRITO-LAY - Hip hop artist Big Freedia performs on the Doritos #BoldStage at the South by Southwest Music Festival on Friday, March 14, 2014, in Austin, Texas. For the first time since its debut at South by Southwest in 2012, fans experienced performances from inside the larger-than-life vending machine turned concert stage. (Photo by Darren Abate/Invision for Frito-Lay/AP Images)

I'm a parent and I understand and feel the devastation of the parents of the 26-year-old man who died at last weekend's Defqon 1 dance festival in Sydney. He died, and eight others were hospitalised because of suspected drug overdoses -- most likely ecstasy or similar substances.

Sixty people were arrested, most for drug possession. For more than 30 years we have asked young people to "Just say no to drugs" and still they use them. And still they die. When will we learn the harsh lessons of our history?

Following the death, NSW Police Detective Inspector Grant Healy said, "Just remember, some person with no quality control is making stuff that can come out of their kitchen sink for you to take and that can ruin your life." Absolutely correct! Yet the government still won't allow the simple, effective, harm reduction approach of testing pills at dance festivals so that there can be some sort of quality control. Instead it clings to antiquated, ineffective, law and order style drug policies.

I've lost count of the number of parents I've spoken to over the years of working in the drug field who say that they would much rather have pill testing at music festivals than police sniffer dogs. Having a child arrested for possession of one ecstasy pill probably won't save their life. If anything, a conviction can mean a lifetime of troubles. Career prospects and international travel can be jeopardised -- you are now an outsider; a convicted criminal.

A singular failing of the "arrest our way out of the problem" approach is that, at dance festivals, only low-level users get arrested and punished. The actual drug manufacturers are nowhere to be seen.

Earlier this year I called on the NSW government to allow pill testing at music festivals following the tragic death of a young person. Many European countries including Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland permit festival goers to test the drugs they may think of taking, (especially ecstasy tablets), away from any police presence.

They can find out what's in the pills, if there's likely to be any adverse reactions and then make an informed decision about whether or not to take them. Here, they simply don't know what they've got and they take extreme risks if they use the drugs. It's effectively Russian Roulette with pills.

In NSW, and elsewhere in Australia, we strictly enforce archaic drug laws by having a strong police presence at music festivals including the use of sniffer dogs. This tactic is often backed up with stern warnings about taking drugs into or consuming them at the party. The implication being that the police will catch you if you try.

These manoeuvres are clearly not working. What in fact is known to happen is that people do smuggle ecstasy pills into these events and then, when they can see that they are about to be confronted by a sniffer dog, they swallow the lot in a desperate bid to avoid detection. The results can, of course, be devastating. I would be as happy as anyone in Australia if young people didn't use drugs and just enjoyed the music at these dance festivals. But I'm a realist.

Some commentators claim that pill testing is expensive and sends the wrong message. The training, maintenance and deployment of sniffer dogs are even more expensive. And it sends the message that our society is tough on drugs. While we're being tough, our young people are dying. Tough on drugs hasn't, doesn't and never will be effective. Parents in Australia want innovative, practical solutions.

The time is long overdue for a good hard look at our drug laws and for the government to get into the business of saving young lives. We have the power to stop another death but I'm yet to find the political will to save a life in these circumstances.

I wonder how many more deaths it will take for us to get realistic about this situation?

Sad to think that another death is on the horizon and it's frustrating to know that it's a life we can save.


The Noffs Foundation supports young people (under the age 25) and their families who are facing issues relating to drug use. Call 1800 151 045 (NSW/ACT) or 1800 753 300 (QLD), or visit