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opinion Opinion July 11, 2019

The boring truth about drug deaths at festivals

The boring truth about drug deaths at festivals
Image: FOMO Festival Sydney 2019

“This doesn’t happen to us, this happens to some other family you read about or hear about in the news.” Jenny, Alex Ross-King’s mother.

On the morning of January 12, nineteen-year-old Alex Ross-King and her friends emptied some of the juice out of their bottles, added vodka, then set off on a bus from Central Coast to Parramatta for the FOMO music festival.

As they travelled down the highway, they “preloaded”, a rite of passage for many cash-strapped teenagers when heading to a music festival, where drink prices are often north of ten dollars a pop.

Like many other kids, they’d also organised to take MDMA. Alex had taken a quarter of a pill before boarding the bus, then another half on the bus. Drug taking can never be completely safe, goes the public health warnings, but this level of caution isn’t uncommon for those who don’t want to risk being hit with something particular dodgy. Pill testing is currently banned in NSW, despite clear evidence that it can and does save lives when offered on-site, so this type of depth charging is the closest way to safeguard yourself against the unknown evils of a pill.

When they arrived in Parramatta, Alex and her friends hopped off the bus and walked the five minutes to the venue. It was already 31 degrees, and they were all dripping with sweat by the time they arrived at the venue. Not surprisingly, the place was swarming with cops. At the same venue, two months later for the Download Festival, a whopping 68 police officers held dominion over a mere 20,000 attendees. The same festival in Melbourne, with the same number of punters, only required 38.

Alex saw all these cops and (also not surprisingly) panicked about being caught by sniffer dogs with the remaining two-and-a-quarter pills – and so she made a split-second decision and necked them. With a 74% false-positive rate, drug detection dogs are an highly-ineffective method of weeding out those holding drugs, a scary and unpredictable presence around any 19-year-old girl, even one who doesn’t have two pills on her person.

It didn’t take long for Alex to start feeling ill. She sat underneath a tree with her friends, drinking Red Bull and vodkas. “She appeared to be very intoxicated and was sweating and looking flushed,” the counsel assisting the inquest Peggy Dwyer told the coroner.

Her friends became worried, and told her to stop drinking. They then went to find water and ice to cool her down — a tall order at a music festival — but between the time they left and returned, Alex had been taken to the medical tent.

Her pulse was irregular, her breathing was rapid, and her temperature had soared to 41 degrees. She was erratic and acting combatively, clearly not of sound mind. She was given sedatives, but they didn’t calm her. She was covered in ice packs, but they didn’t cool her. Once body temperatures rise above 40 degrees, the body loses the ability to regulate its own temperature and hyperthermia kicks in. From here it’s rarely good news: blood cannot clot, bodily organs begin to fail and shut down, and fluid builds up around the brain and cannot drain, causing pressure to increase dramatically. Then the heart gives way.

By the time Alex was taken to Westmead Hospital, her body had risen to a dangerous 42C and she had lost consciousness. Ten minutes later she went into cardiac arrest. The next four hours were spent attempting to resuscitate her. At 9:15pm, as Nicki Minaj performed on the main stage, Alex Ross-King was declared dead.

Five other young people, aged between 19 and 23, died at music festivals in New South Wales that same summer, all of whom had nothing more in common than bad luck – and that they had each taken more than one MDMA pill. In the wake of such senseless tragedy, NSW Health interviewed a number of people who had also overdosed at music festivals that summer and happened to survive. NSW Health aimed to establish the reasoning behind the risky behaviour that lead to overdoses.

“A number of participants reported that their risky behaviours were driven by fear of police, including taking drugs prior to arrival at the event and avoiding the medical centre or open disclosure of substance use,” Peggy Dwyer told the court on Monday, day one of an inquest into these six drug-related deaths. The inquest will aim to prevent further similar deaths, with the relaxation of draconian police presence, and the introduction of pill testing, likely to be the main two ‘harm reduction’ recommendations offered up.

Dwyer cited the “presence and behaviours” of police and security as exacerbating the risks of drug taking. Simply put: young people holding drugs fear the police, and will take whatever drugs they have on their person, no matter the risks, in order to evade detection, arrest, ejection or imprisonment. This fear is what killed Alex.

“I expect that your honour will hear that this is done, as in the case of young Alex, to avoid being caught by police and charged with a criminal offence,” Dwyer explained.

Alex didn’t want to take three pills within 90 minutes. That wasn’t her plan. She made a split-second decision, motivated by fear. Like many people who die at festivals after taking too many drugs for their bodies to handle, Alex’s fear of arrest was stronger than her fear of a fatal overdose. At least, in that one fatal moment, it was.

Her mother’s quote, at the top of this column is a telling one. It sounds like that of any grieving and disbelieving mother, struggling to come to terms with a tragedy.

“This doesn’t happen to us

This is the attitude of many towards such drugs. Despite recreational drug use being commonplace, it is treated as something to be hidden. When it is brought into the light, it is only under the guise of tragedy, or as evidence of wayward youth or a crumbling society. Of foolish, avoidable behaviour. It is treated as a criminal issue to be stamped out, not a health risk to be mitigated through intelligent, legally-available options and fact-based widespread public education.

Anti-drug messaging that warns of the dangers in black and white terms clearly has one effect: it makes kids ignore it, scoff at it, disregard the entire message. Because most of the time, drugs don’t kill. Hell, most of the time, illegal drugs have no negative consequences: legally, physical, or otherwise. That’s the real secret here, some people quite enjoy taking drugs and can often do so safely and without incident. But sometimes things don’t turn out so rosy. It’s a roulette wheel, but it’s one in which the odds of dying can be lessened with common-sense policy.

“This happens to some other family you read about or hear about in the news.”

Alex’s story is tragic, but until her hyperthermic body was rushed to a medic tent, it was pretty boring. That is, to say, it was pretty commonplace. Staying at a friend’s house, taking pills, pre-drinking on the bus to the festival, vodka, Red Bull, sweating in the sun. Too many cops, too much fear, waiting until the very last moment to seek help, because seeking help would admit culpability and criminal activity.

At the opening of the inquest, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame seemed to understand the banal reality of drug use.

“These are your children but they could just as easily be the children of my own community or my own family,” she said. “They could be any young people who go to music festivals and partake in drugs as many young people do.

“These are our young people … and we owe them a proper investigation of the circumstances in which they died.”


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