Pill testing. The abolition of sniffer dogs. A drastic reduction of strip searches.
Those are just three of the recommendations made to the NSW government by the deputy state coroner, who today released the findings of a landmark investigation into the drug-related deaths of six young people at music festivals.
The Guardian reports Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame has called for a raft of changes to the state’s approach to drug use, arguing that many widely-used tactics are ineffective at best and potentially harmful at worst.
The report advocates for pill testing to be adopted at large-scale music events and in the community before the summer festival season, with Grahame saying “there is sufficient evidence” to justify the trials.
“Drug-checking is simply an evidence-based harm-reduction strategy that should be trialled as soon as possible in NSW,” Grahame said, adding the state should “reframe our main priority from reducing drug use to reducing drug death.”
Grahame criticised the proliferation of police officers at music festivals, saying “I am of the firm view that there is sound evidence that highly-visible policing and use of drug detection dogs at music festivals is a harmful intervention.”
She said it was likely the presence of police officers and sniffer dogs could incite drug users into “panic ingestion”, the practice of ingesting large quantities of illicit substances a user may have planned to share with others or spread throughout an extended time period.
Grahame also called for an end to the “wholesale practice of strip-searching young people,” echoing widespread concerns about the confronting practice.
She argued police should limit strip searches to those reasonably suspected of supplying illicit substances at events, not those simply suspected of using drugs – unless not conducting the search would cause a serious and immediate safety risk or would result in evidence being tossed away.
Nick Kent, national president of advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told PEDESTRIAN.TV it was promising the report referenced intense policing and sniffer dogs as potentially harmful factors.
“Pill testing is a great intervention. It’s a really necessary intervention,” Kent said.
“But it’s not a silver bullet to address the complexity of things that are happening in these spaces, particularly when current government responses are so punitive and so harmful.”
Many of the report’s findings mirror a leaked draft which emerged last month. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian used that opportunity to pre-emptively shoot down the possibility of pill testing in the state, arguing the practice can give users a false sense of security.
It is yet to be seen how Berejiklian responds to the full report, but Kent says there’s much more work to be done before those proposals are adopted by the state government.
“What it seems like, particularly in the Liberal Party, is an ideological opposition to harm reduction interventions and evidence-based drug policy,” Kent said.
“And we see that across the board with conservative governments who really don’t want to budge on this one drug approach, which is trying to control and punish. And that’s clearly killing us.”
In today’s statement, Grahame said she was moved by the short lives of Nathan Tran, 18, Alex Ross-King, 19, Callum Brosnan, 19, Diana Nguyen, 21, Josh Tam, 22, and Joseph Pham, 23, whose tragic deaths at music festivals sparked the inquest.
“The faces of these young people will remain with me going forward,” Grahame said.Image: Regi Varchese / AAP Image