Coronial Inquest Recommends Scrapping Sniffer Dogs, Trial Of Pill Testing
The state government should trial pill testing at music festivals this summer, but also stop the use of drug detection dogs, the NSW coroner has recommended after an inquest into drug-related deaths.
The government has also been urged to consider entirely decriminalising personal use of drugs, while police have been recommended to focus on drug supply rather than users, and scale back strip searches.
NSW deputy coroner Harriet Grahame has revealed her much-anticipated findings from an inquest into the deaths of six young Australian at NSW music festivals.
The six festivalgoers -- all under 24 and from NSW, Victoria or Queensland -- died after taking MDMA capsules at or shortly before attending music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.
On Friday, recommendations were handed down including that sniffer dogs -- criticised by some harm reduction advocates as scaring young people, with claims those possessing drugs hurriedly swallow the substances when they see a dog -- be no longer used at festivals.
In addition, the NSW government has been urged to allow a trial of pill testing this summer, a reform Premier Gladys Berejiklian has so far been steadfastly opposed to. The government also "should give full and genuine consideration" to "decriminalising personal use of drugs, as a mechanism to reduce the harm caused by drug use" and "expanded regulation of certain currently illicit drugs".
The coroner's report recommended that: "the Department of Premier and Cabinet permits and facilitates Pill Testing Australia, The Loop Australia, or another similarly qualified organisation to run front of house medically supervised pill testing/drug checking at music festivals in NSW with a pilot date starting the summer of 2019–20."
Emergency physician Dr David Caldicott, one of the driving forces behind Pill Testing Australia, told 10 daily that his group could get a trial up and running with as little as two weeks notice. The group has run two successful pill testing trials at the Groovin The Moo festival in Canberra in recent years.
"Timing not an issue. From our perspective, the issues obstructing pill testing in Australia have been almost exclusively political. The question is whether the government has the appetite to follow the recommendations," he said from Ireland.
"We would welcome any change in opinion, we'd happily work with them if it changes... we have the expertise, the team, the exclusive Australian experience in running a trial like this."
Jen Ross-King, whose daughter Alex was one of those who died at a festival, said the recommendations needed to be acted upon.
"I think it is time that instead of politicians believing that their opinions are what we should be doing, and actually listen to what the experts are saying," she said outside the NSW Coroner's Court on Friday.
"I can't understand, I couldn't possibly even remotely understand how you would not think that... pill testing would save a life. And it is not giving the green light. There is no green lights. Nobody is saying that it's OK. Nobody is standing here, none of these experts that I speak to or have ever said anything to have ever said it is OK to take drugs."
"I just hope that the Premier will review the information and ask the questions she needs to ask to inform herself better."
Elsewhere in the recommendations, NSW Police have been urged to consider limiting invasive strip searches to situations where "there is a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit an offence of supply a prohibited drug" -- rather than individual users possessing a small quantity.
Harm reduction organisation Unharm quickly praised the recommendations, calling them "sensible".
NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann also called for the government to act on the recommendations.
"Please listen to the experts and act to save lives," she tweeted at the Premier, tagging Berejiklian's Twitter account.
At the inquest Grahame heard from the parents and friends of Joshua Tam, Nathan Tran, Alex Ross-King, Diana Nguyen, Joseph Pham, Joshua Tam and Callum Brosnan, as well as police and emergency services and an extensive list of drug experts.
Many at the inquest called for medically supervised drug checking, a police focus on harm reduction and high school illicit drug lessons that go beyond "just say no".
The coroner also called on Berejiklian to host a drug summit to review evidence and develop human rights-based policies towards illicit substances.
She made the same call in March after overseeing an inquest into the accidental overdose deaths of five men and one woman as a result of heroin or multi-drug toxicity in 2016.
At the time Grahame said lowering the rate of opioid overdoses was clearly achievable but would "require a government willing to listen to health experts and to act decisively on their advice".
Berejiklian has been steadfast in refusing to facilitate pill testing in NSW.
Instead, her government has focused on ensuring high-risk festivals meet stringent safety standards, taking steps to increase emergency service numbers and provide free, chilled water.
The inquest, held this year, also exposed NSW police strip search procedures, with a tearful young woman detailing how she was ordered to squat and cough while naked and had been wrongly accused of hiding drugs.
As hearings closed in September Tam's mother Julie said her son and the five other young adults who died must be "the faces of change".
"I wish one reckless moment of abandonment hadn't brought about these tragic results, but that the six of you were meant to create a ripple so far and so wide that this changing landscape cannot and must not be ignored," she told the inquest.
"Those that stand in the way of change please step aside ... I don't believe that political parties should be involved in decisions like these at all. Re-election should not influence important reforms."