Decision Maker: Council
Decision status: Recommendations Determined
Minute by the Lord Mayor
The festival season is now underway.
Australian Festivals Association members have already staged two festivals this
month and will present a further 13 across greater Sydney and regional NSW
between December 2023 and April 2024. There may be others.
Showcasing different music and dance genres,
diverse, ranging from country and folk to electronic and dance music, they will
attract well over 100,000 people. Many will be attracted by the music, the
atmosphere and the opportunity to socialise with others sharing similar tastes.
Some will seek to augment their experience by using drugs. This is despite
politicians and others delivering simplistic and ineffective messages of “don’t
take drugs”, the intimidating use of sniffer dogs and the threat of invasive and
frequently illegal strip searches.
With this comes the risk of young people
experiencing serious medical episodes, which in some cases, may result in young
people dying. We know the risk is high because we have already seen this
happen. We also know what we need to do to minimise this risk. Yet despite
this, successive governments have failed to act.
On 6 November 2019, Deputy State Coroner
Harriet Grahame released the results of her thorough and comprehensive inquiry
into the MDMA drug-related deaths of six young people who had attended music
festivals between December 2017 and January 2019. Ms Grahame described all six
as "gifted, vibrant, well-connected and very much loved" and said the
deaths were "completely unexpected and profoundly tragic". In her
final report, Ms Grahame wrote that their pattern of drug use was likely to be
were keen to have new experiences. They used infrequently on special occasions
or when socialising, were not addicted, and had never had reason to seek
professional help in relation to their drug use. It appears that each had used
MDMA before, without a having a significant negative consequence.”
During her three-week inquest, Ms Grahame
took evidence from medical experts, the police, festival organisers and
festival attendees, including friends of the six young people who had died.
These young people talked candidly about the circumstances of their friend’s
deaths, along with their drug use, their reasons for taking drugs and their
knowledge, often limited, about the effects of drugs.
This was supported by extensive documentary
material in 24 volumes, which included witness statements, medical records,
photographs, and expert reports. Eight additional research volumes provided
relevant background information.
What emerged from this evidence “was in some
respects positive”, Ms Graham wrote in her final report.
evidence arising from this inquest clearly indicates that there is much that
can be done to prevent MDMA deaths. There are practical solutions to some of
the issues identified. However, the evidence draws into clear focus the need
for the NSW Government to look with fresh eyes at the potential dangers
associated with drug use at music festivals. There is a need to reframe our
main priority from reducing drug use to reducing drug death.”
Her report contained 28 recommendations,
directed towards the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, NSW Health, NSW
Police the Department of Communities and Justice and festival organisers. They
included introducing medically supervised pill testing/drug checking at NSW
music festivals and funding the establishment of a permanent drug checking
facility. Policing at music festivals should be directed towards providing
support and comfort where needed, acting to reduce or minimise harm and
concentrated on organised drug dealing, social disorder and other crimes. Drug
detection dogs were not to be used and strip searches were only to be conducted
in specifically defined circumstances.
Ms Graham also recommended that the
Government hold a drug summit “to develop drug policy that is evidence-based
and focused on minimising harm to users and the community repeated her
recommendation from her earlier inquiry into opiate-related deaths”. This
recommendation was not new. She had made a similar recommendation in March 2019
in the report of her inquiry into opiate-related deaths.
Other leading experts were also calling for a
summit. On 11 February 2019, Council unanimously supported these calls, arising
from my Minute, Practical and Compassionate Action on Drugs (Attachment A).
Council also unanimously agreed to facilitate a practical demonstration of drug
testing by medical professionals. That demonstration took place in Sydney Town
Hall on 12 June 2019, attended by health, community and government
The demonstration was conducted by Pill
Testing Australia, who had conducted two drug testing trials at the Canberra ‘Groovin’ The Moo’ festivals. Young people would provide a
sample of their drugs to be tested for their content. This was only one step in
the process. Of greater importance was their conversations with peer educators,
who would discuss their drug use and explain that the test would not guarantee
that the drug was “safe”. Once the test was completed, volunteer peer educators
would explain the contents of the drugs and discuss options. Some people
discarded their drugs in the amnesty bins provided. Others said they would
reconsider taking their drugs or take less.
Despite the success of the pill testing
trials, and the weight of evidence supporting Ms Grahame’s recommendations,
successive governments have failed to act.
Immediately after her report was released,
the then NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian denied that there was evidence to
support a drug checking trial. Some months later, her Government delayed the
release of a detailed inquiry into the drug, ice, and then delayed its response
beyond its own deadline. When it finally responded, 15 months after receiving
the report, it rejected five recommendations outright, including pill testing,
and provision of a second medically supervised injecting centre. In the meantime,
the ACT Labor-Greens Government has established a permanent drug checking
facility and effectively decriminalised personal drug use, instead treating it
as a health issue. In February, the Queensland Labor Government announced it
will introduce drug checking at mobile and fixed sites.
In contrast, NSW’s new Labor Government has
delayed reform action until after its proposed drug summit. Yet it has still to
set a date for next year. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in September that
no provision had been made for it in the NSW state budget.
Concerned about this inaction, last month a
coalition of peak medical bodies released an open letter to the Premier calling
on his Government to “immediately start drug checking with an implementation
pilot this summer festival season”.
“This summer is forecast to be a hot one, and
we know that high temperatures combined with unexpectedly high doses of MDMA is
a dangerous combination that can be fatal. Without drug checking, there's no
way to identify high-risk drug samples before people consume them,” they wrote.
They suggested an “evaluated pilot program”
would provide “vital information for further discussion” when it is held at the
NSW Drug Summit next year.
“In drug checking services, health
professionals provide expert harm reduction advice and help people manage the
risks of taking drugs. Drug checking already operates in 28 countries around
the world, including Australia and is supported by a strong evidence base that
shows it helps people make better decisions for their own wellbeing,” they
The letter was signed by the Royal Australian
College of General Practitioners, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians,
the Australian Salaried Medical Officers' Federation, the NSW Nurses and
Midwives Association and the Health Services Union.
I support their call. I also support calls
for the Premier to set a date and timeline for the proposed drug summit. It
will provide a valuable forum for evidence to be presented, considered and
discussed and enable informed decisions to be made and worthwhile outcomes to
This was my experience of the first drug
summit held over five days at Parliament House in 1999. Significantly, the Carr
Labor Government held it within months after that year’s State election. It
brought together Members of Parliament, experts in the medical and social
aspects of drug use, community representatives, families who had lost their
sons and daughters to overdosing and people with experience of drug use and its
effects. We heard compelling and moving evidence about issues that were
confronting to many of them. MPs engaged in serious discussions about these
issues, often for the first time, and many of them changed their views.
While the medically supervised injecting room
in Kings Cross was its most high-profile outcome, it achieved much more. It
made 172 recommendations relating to young people and drugs, treatment
services, drug education, law enforcement, breaking the drugs and crimes cycle
and community action.
We now have new issues to address, not least
the risks associated with casual drug use by people, particularly young people,
who are not addicted or drug dependent and who otherwise live productive,
happy, crime-free lives. This is in addition to the medical and social problems
associated with drug addiction and the use of drugs such as ice.
A new drug summit could examine all the
possible ideas that could contribute to minimising the harm from illicit drug use.
It could consider whether existing approaches are working effectively or
whether they are perversely increasing the risk of harm. This includes measures
to ensure safety and reduce harm. While some may aim for the unrealistic ideal
of a completely drug free world, a drug summit should aim to help people stay
alive in this one.
COUNCILLOR CLOVER MOORE AO
Moved by the Chair (the Lord Mayor) –
It is resolved that:
Council note the recommendations of the Inquest
into the death of six patrons of NSW music festivals conducted by Deputy
Coroner Harriet Grahame during 2019, as shown at Attachment B to the subject
Council endorse the open letter to the NSW Premier
calling on his Government to "immediately start drug checking with an
implementation pilot this summer festival season", as shown at Attachment
C to the subject Minute; and
the Lord Mayor be requested to write to the Premier
set a date and timeline for his proposed Drug
ensure that the Summit:
brings together Members of Parliament, experts in
the medical and social aspects of drug use, including young people, police,
community representatives, families, and people with experience of drug use and
its effects; and
has as its priority the development of
recommendations for action that would reduce the risk of drug-related deaths
and will contribute to reducing and ending the harm from illicit drug use,
including drug checking/pill testing and the reform of the policing of drug
Report author: Erin Cashman
Publication date: 20/11/2023
Date of decision: 20/11/2023
Decided at meeting: 20/11/2023 - Council