World News

Are Australia’s Music Festivals to Blame for Overdose Deaths?

Posted September 17, 2018 1:16 p.m. EDT

SYDNEY — Australian authorities vowed to shut down a popular music festival after two people died of suspected drug overdoses and 700 others sought medical attention over the weekend.

The deaths at the Defqon.1 festival in Sydney renewed a debate about drug policy in the country, with supporters of liberalization — and music — arguing that canceling popular events is needlessly heavy-handed.

The recent fatalities are the latest in a string of deaths related to the use of recreational drugs at music festivals, the largest of which draw tens of thousands of people, many of them teenagers.

For some the solution is prohibition, but an increasing number of so-called harm reduction advocates argue that drug use can be made safer, by educating concert attendees and by testing drugs for purity.

Here’s what you should know about the debate around drug policy and Australia’s music festivals.

— Prohibition or prevention?

Overdose deaths at festivals are an ongoing problem.

After each death — including those at the Stereosonic music festival in Adelaide in 2015 and at the Rainbow Serpent festival in southern Australia last year — authorities threatened to cancel the events, saying the festivals’ culture of permissiveness had contributed to overdoses.

“This is an unsafe event, and I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure it never happens again,” Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, said Sunday after a 23-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman died at Defqon.1.

Harm reduction advocates argue that “zero-tolerance” policies simply lead to secret drug use.

Instead, they suggest that authorities create safe conditions for drug use, including testing pills to determine their purity.

In April, a Canberra festival provided free pill testing for attendees, a national first.

“Pill testing would have helped,” Dr. Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said in a television interview Monday, referring to the hundreds of people who were hospitalized over the weekend.

“The premier has got zero tolerance to drugs,” he added. “I prefer to have zero tolerance to preventable deaths of young people.”

Berejiklian has said there is no such thing as safe drug use. “Anyone who advocates pill testing is giving the green light to drugs. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

— Are festivals to blame?

While shutting down the festival may score political points, it is unlikely to keep people from consuming illicit drugs, said Steve Allsop of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.

“I can’t imagine any government that would be banning all music events, all night life and entertainment,” Allsop said. “That’s just not feasible.”

Pill testing is just one initiative that has been suggested; teaching festivalgoers how to recognize an overdose is another. But the key is relying on evidence rather than perceptions, Allsop said, adding that “no single thing is going to be a magic wand.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost half of Australians age 14 and over have tried an illicit drug at least once. About 15 percent said they had used drugs in the past 12 months.

“Looking at the evidence, we tend to be relative high users of stimulants including MDMA, compared to many other countries,” Allsop said, referring to the drug commonly known as ecstasy.

— What are other countries doing?

Pill testing has been available in some European countries for years. The service is one of several harm-reduction policies that have been available in the Netherlands since the 1990s.

The practice has also become more common over the past few years at festivals in the United States. A 2017 study found that individuals who submitted samples of MDMA for testing reported that they were significantly less likely to ingest drugs if they learned they were adulterated.

And in Britain, where deaths from recreational drug use have also galvanized the national conversation, pill testing has been implemented on a trial basis since 2016. That same year, authorities revoked the license of Fabric, one of London’s most fabled nightclubs, after two teenagers died in drug-related cases. But the venue reopened five months later after lobbying from promoters, DJs and music fans.

As festival season in Australia enters full swing, people are engaging a period of increased risk, Allsop said. “This should be an opportunity to start saying: ‘Let’s try something different.'”