The Great Pill - Testing Debate

With all the recent media attention on festival crackdowns after the deaths of more young Australians from taking illicit party drugs, it seems everyone has an opinion. Whether you’re pro-drug testing or against, the effects of the crackdown on these illicit substances is being felt across the festival community.

Cancelled festivals and higher restrictions on permit approval have created a storm across social media about where the onus to provide extra security measures should lie. With pill-testing and enhanced restrictions being placed on festivals across NSW, what does it mean for the future of festivals Australia wide?

A club fills with smoke and lasers.


The impact of the crackdown - dubbed the “war on festivals” by some news outlets, is being felt far and wide across the festival community. Two Aussie festivals have been cancelled just this week in the wake of the cry for pill-testing and improved security measures at festivals. NSW Central coast based festival Mountain Sounds announced earlier today that the event was cancelled, a mere week out from the scheduled kick-off date.

Organisers of the latest casualty in the war on festivals called the new restrictions and safety guidelines “impossible to meet”, stating that the additional restrictions blindsided them. Mountain Sounds joins the list of Aussie festivals feeling the backlash, alongside Psyfari, Bohemian Beatfreaks, Good Things, and Rabbits Eat Lettuce.

Psyfari announced the cancellation of their 10th anniversary event earlier this week, slating the NSW government for excessive restrictions and calling them out for their ever-increasing desire to shut down any semblance of culture statewide.

A Stop sign has been modified to say Don't stop the doof.

After imposing lock-out restrictions on live music and entertainment venues in 2014, NSW venues and entertainers alike are well and truly feeling the aftermath such restrictions have placed on both the culture and their livelihoods.

While the government seems determined to stand by the figures that alcohol-related assaults have decreased since the lockout laws came into effect, the ramifications of these restrictions on both the economy and the live-music culture have been felt Sydney-wide.

176 Sydney venues have closed since the restrictions were imposed, while the amount of venues that now provide gambling services in order to circumnavigate the new laws has bumped NSW up to the number two spot in the world.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Deloitte has found that NSW is missing out on up to a staggering $16B in lost economic activity due to the lock out laws and restrictions placed on the entertainment industry. The full value of the arts and entertainment industry has the potential to reach more than $43B.

We did some Googling, that's around 9% of all economic activity in the state.

Whilst stifling the creative industries and making it harder for musicians to cut a profit in an already cut-throat industry, the NSW government has boosted the profits of an industry that has devastating social consequences.

Perhaps if festival organisers agreed to chuck a few pokies in the back the NSW government would reconsider excessive restrictions in exchange for their usual kickbacks from the gambling industry.

It’s in no doubt that local economies that benefit from festival attendance will be impacted, as will the veritable barrage of industries that all play a part in making a festival come together and be an enjoyable experience for all.

Protesters hold signs petitioning for the introduction of pill-testing

The crackdown on live entertainment has gotten more aggressive in recent weeks after the death of the fifth young Aussie from illicit party drugs in six-months. While this doesn’t seem like an alarming figure compared to the number of illicit drugs that are undoubtedly consumed each year, family members of the deceased and health organisations have been quick to offer support for mandatory pill-testing laws across Australia.

While pill-testing would provide a safer means for party-goers to ensure that they are not unknowingly consuming contaminated drugs, the NSW government has doubled-down on their opposition to such measures.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian released a public statement in the wake of the most recent death of 19 year old Alex Ross-King, who died after taking an ecstacy tablet at FOMO festival last month. Ms Berejiklian stated that the NSW government’s official stance was that they were concerned by the unintended consequences of pill-testing, including the false sense of security that such measures may provide festival goers and reinforced the illegality of consuming such drugs.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that instead of passing legislation requiring mandatory pill-testing at all music festival events they instead decided to up the requirements for liquor licensing, increased police presence and safety measures pertaining to crowd size.

Several festivals have stated that the initially quoted fee for police presence at their event has spiked considerably - in some cases by over 400% in the wake of the pill-testing debate, causing unforseen costs, venue changes, and cancellations due to the late notice and prohibitive cost of providing additional support.

Sniffer dogs and police patrol a festival in the crackdown on party drugs

The latest leaked report from within the NSW Government has suggested that these regulations are about to get a whole lot stricter, with a "user-pays" approach to providing mandatory safety backup for festivals including extra police, medical staff, and ambulances.

Byron Bay Bluesfest has already announced that they are unlikely to be able to continue due to the latest raft of regulations imposed. With less than one month until these new regulations are rolled out, festival organisers are now expected to provide details about the logistics of the entire festival for approval - not just their plans for providing safe support under liquor licensing regulations. 

What this essentially means is that the NSW government has the final say on which festivals they choose to go ahead and which festivals they cancel due to red tape and restrictive costs for providing this additional backup.

With a raft of cancelled festivals from the last decade already accumulating, this latest news means a whole lot more bad bad, not good news for the festival scene, and a devastating result for the doof economy as a whole. 

sad festival goers

On one hand the NSW government has a point when it comes to the false sense of security that pill-testing would provide party goers. Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals which are produced under strict conditions and manufactured down to the last mg, party drugs are at the creative whim of their supplier.

Party drugs such as MDMA and cocaine are often cut with other substances to decrease the purity and increase the revenue from the base synthetic ingredient. While sensationalist stories focus on the rat poison, bleach, and crushed glass that have been found in seized drugs, the reality is that anything from over the counter painkillers to caffeine have been found in party drugs.

A bit of extra pep doesn’t seem like a bad thing when you’re snorting coke at a music festival, but the point is that pill-testing won’t account for adverse reactions to any number of ingredients contained within the pills, the combination of MDMA with other substances such as alcohol, or the quantity that you choose to take.

Purity testing of party drugs reveals they're really bad.

On the other hand, the Australian government has an obligation to protect its citizens as best it can - the same obligation that festival companies have for their patrons. Despite the Australian Medical Association backing pill-testing at festivals, the response - at least for now, towards handling party-drug related deaths is to double down on law enforcement and up the regulations imposed on festival organisers which as we’ve seen this week results in cancellations of festivals entirely.

Festival organisers have the responsibility of providing adequate safety measures in order to protect their patrons, including the provision of trained medical staff on site and adequate security for their venues. Pill-testing is an extension of the medical care provided to festival goers while at the same time providing an opportunity to educate on the potential dangers of consuming party drugs, especially in combination with excessive amounts of alcohol or other substances.

As the war on drugs has proved, the supply of illicit substances is a billion dollar industry so why are Australian policy makers so hell-bent on a one-size-fits all approach when it comes to festivals and other live-entertainment venues?

This isn’t just a war on festivals, it’s a war on culture.

What are your thoughts? How have you been affected? We'd love to know. Share with us in the comments :)

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