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Sydney Music Festival Fatalities Spark Fresh Call for Pill Testing Measures

3 October 2023 | 10:14 am | Jessie Lynch

“They need to commence harm reduction strategies within music festival environments this summer. Now. Not wait for a drug summit."

Pill Testing

Pill Testing (Canva)

The NSW government is facing renewed calls to start pill testing after two men died during the opening weekend of the summer festival season.

The two men, aged in their 20s, died after leaving the Knockout Outdoor festival at Sydney Showground on Saturday (Sept. 30), with police currently waiting on autopsy reports.

As reported by the ABC, two men who attended the festival died in hospital after the event. The younger of them, aged 21, was treated by paramedics at a hotel on George Street in Chippendale; he died shortly after being transferred to hospital.

Paramedics also tended to a 26-year-old man at Sydney Olympic Park shortly before 1am, before he was transferred to Concord Hospital and died of a suspected drug overdose.

It’s been reported that nine other attendees were transferred to hospital from the festival grounds, although it’s not yet known why.

Amid the news, the mother of Alex Ross-Kingwho died from an MDMA overdose at FOMO Festival in 2019 — has urged the NSW government to implement better hard reduction strategies, such as pill testing, in order to avoid more deaths this coming festival season.

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“They need to commence harm reduction strategies within music festival environments this summer. Now. Not wait for a drug summit,” she told reporters (as per The Guardian).

“If they do to a drug summit, fantastic. Go with some of your own evidence from a trial of pill testing in NSW.”

She added that she felt “so sorry” for the parents of the young men who died and called on the government to “listen to the experts”.

A coronial inquest previously found Ms Ross-King’s daughter’s death to be MDMA toxicity, after the teen ingested two caps prior to entering the venue because she was nervous about being caught by police.

And while current studies have shown that pill testing is successful in harm reduction for punters, NSW health minister, Ryan Park, insisted on Monday that pill testing is not a “silver bullet” that would prevent deaths.

"We all have a role to play in this space but no one particular initiative is going to give complete coverage and ensure everyone goes home safely," he said.

“What I don’t want people to believe is that one thing, pill testing, for example, is going to be a silver bullet that will prevent overdoses, that will prevent deaths.”

He continued, “My message to those families is that I can’t begin to take away their pain. I can express on behalf of the government my deepest sorrow, my deepest and most deepest condolences and I can also express that we will continue to look at ways every day to make our festivals as safe as possible.”

Greens MP Cate Faerhmann also voiced her frustration over the lack of such harm-reduction strategies and called for immediate action ahead of festivals taking place this summer, saying there is enough evidence to show pill testing prevents harm.

"It's incredibly frustrating that governments don't seem to act unless there's a crisis but then all they've done after the crisis is commission reports and then not act on the recommendations," Faerhmann told reporters on Monday.

"It's going to be a very hot summer and it's going to be a very dangerous summer unless Chris Minns acts."

Last month, it was announced that Queensland would be the first state to allow punters to test their illegal substances without the police getting involved.

It would mean that the state would become the first in Australia to offer drug users a free service to test illegal substances such as ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine, with the development coming as part of a new policy from the Queensland government that seeks to prioritise public safety over punitive measures.

The Queensland walk-in service will also be confidential and available to people of any age — including those who are under 18 — with users now able to approach these drug-checking services at music and sporting events, without the fear of police getting involved.

The move was first flagged back in February this year, following the success of trials in Groovin The Moo Festival in Canberra in 2018 and 2019 by Pill Testing Australia. The ACT then introduced a government-approved fixed pill testing site in a trial last year.

Health Minister Shannon Fentiman explained that the trials in the ACT indicated that when individuals were not worried about prosecution, drug-checking services effectively mitigated the negative consequences linked to the use of illicit substances.

It also saw punters ditching drugs that contained different ingredients to what they had believed to have bought.

“We need to be clear – this is a harm minimisation measure, not a law-and-order campaign,” the Health Minister said, as per SMH.

“We are doing this to try to protect all Queenslanders from the dangerous effects of illicit drugs.”