Drug overdoses mount as debate continues

Matt Woodley

29/01/2019 3:32:45 PM

Gladys Berejiklian said she hopes people are getting the message about drug use, despite more than 30 hospitalisations over the long weekend.

Seven drug-related hospitalisations occurred at the four-day Rainbow Serpent dance festival in central Victoria.
Seven drug-related hospitalisations occurred at the four-day Rainbow Serpent dance festival in central Victoria.

In addition to the hospitalisations, at least 84 people were charged with drug possession, while a 17-year-old boy was found with 579 capsules and $2075 in cash at Sydney’s Hardcore Til I Die festival – one of seven attendees charged with drug supply at the event.
Meanwhile, seven of the 32 overall hospitalisations occurred at the four-day Rainbow Serpent dance festival in central Victoria, where a further 25 people were arrested for drug-related offences.
The NSW government spent around $500,000 on harm reduction for three festivals, including additional critical care teams, ‘chillout zones’ and free electrolyte drinks.
Following the weekend, Ms Berejiklian again ruled out any proposed pill-testing trials, saying instead that she hoped people were starting to heed a ‘just say no’ message.
‘It is not acceptable to take ecstasy and think it is not going to affect you, your friends or your loved ones,’ she said. ‘I know some people are advocating one solution or another, but there isn’t one solution.
‘It’s a complex issue … we want young people to feel they can have a conversation, we want young people to get help when they need it.’
Ms Berejiklian’s stance is at odds with numerous health groups that have advocated for a more health-focused approach.
Last week the Australian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists added their support for pill-testing trials, joining the Australian Medical Association, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, and RACGP president Dr Harry Nespolon as proponents of the initiative.
‘There is enough evidence out there to support pill testing in the Australian environment. The results from the ACT trial in 2018 indicate that the supports associated with the testing, as well as the test results, have a positive impact on young people’s decision whether to use the pills they have with them,’ ACEM President Dr Simon Judkins said.
The report from the ACT trial and evidence from overseas suggests pill testing should be considered as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce harm.’
The mother of a man who died from a drug overdose at a Victorian music festival has also garnered significant support for a trial via a petition that has so far received more than 100,000 signatures.
Ms Adriana Buccianti, whose son Daniel died at the 2012 Rainbow Serpent festival, attempted to meet with Ms Berejiklian over the weekend to present the signatures and discuss pill testing, but the Premier declined.
Ms Buccianti instead met with opposition MPs and urged them to commit pill testing as part of their election campaign, while the Government also offered to arrange a meeting with another senior official.
‘We have evidence that pill testing works. We have the majority of Australians supporting pill testing. The only thing getting in the way are politicians,’ Ms Buccianti said.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has again ruled out any proposed pill-testing trials. (Image: Joel Carrett)

However, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has characterised the debate around pill testing as a ‘side-show’ that has distracted from educating young people on the risks of drug-taking.
‘Young people are actually continuing to take drugs, and continuing to take them at such a level that we had to get 14 of them receiving an extremely high-level medical response,’ Mr Hazzard said following the weekend’s events.
‘Six were intubated – they had tubes put down their throat to assist their breathing. A number of other measures were taken to make sure they stayed alive.’
Mr Hazzard also defended the half a million dollars that were put towards harm minimisation, describing it as ‘money well spent’, but at the same time criticised drug users and said the costs would be covered by festival organisers in the future.
‘We really shouldn’t have to have so many of our public servants, our nurses, our doctors, our paramedics and our police there just to make sure you are having a good time and are safe,’ he said.
‘I’m asking young people to reflect on what is being done to try and keep you safe because of your own actions.’
While multiple national health groups have publicly supported pill testing, the ACT is the only state or territory where the government has trialled the controversial measure.
Politicians regularly cite advice from police that such an undertaking would present the wrong message to the public, while NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has said pill-testing advocates want to ‘legalise drugs by stealth’.
Six people have died as a result of drug overdoses during the Australian festival season.
There are currently no new plans to introduce pill-testing measures at future events.

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