Drug problem pill-testing debate ignores

By | February 2, 2019

As the debate surrounding pill testing at music festivals continues to heat up, the harm associated with another drug — alcohol — appears to have disappeared from the spotlight.

Over the Australia Day long weekend, 25 people were transferred to hospital from the Electric Gardens, Hardcore Till I Die and Rolling Loud music festivals in Sydney.

Plenty of others dripping in sweat were dragged out of crowds by security staff for immediate medical care.

Over the past couple of days, the numbers of teenagers and young people hospitalised and arrested have been repeatedly linked to conversations around drug use, and arguments for and against pill testing.

It was suspected overdoses that made headlines on Monday morning, but medical crews had treated festivalgoer for alcohol related harm as well.

NSW Police ejected 79 Hardcore Til I Die festivalgoers, including 30 for drunkenness. At Rolling Loud, 23 of the 69 revellers booted were kicked out for intoxication.

At Rolling Loud at Sydney’s Olympic Park, I witnessed young festivalgoers turn their backs to police to sip from hip flasks or water bottles filled with vodka while lined up waiting to enter the festival.

While those carrying flasks had less to worry about than those concealing pills as sniffer dogs surrounded the queue, many wouldn’t have been thinking of the damage alcohol could do.

Drinking can turn nasty really quickly. It can lead to slurred speech, blurry vision and bad co-ordination.

Impulsive and regretful decisions like unsafe sex, fights and vomiting in public are also far more likely to occur when inebriated, not to mention, a hangover can linger for days.

More than 760 teenagers aged between 15 and 17 presented to emergency departments across NSW with “alcohol problems” during the 2017-18 financial year.

In the same 12-month period, 2718 men and women aged between 18 and 24 also sought emergency medical care for alcohol-related health issues, such as acute intoxication and injury.

Newcastle University school of nursing and midwifery Professor Alison Hutton, who has been researching music festivals and schoolies celebrations for about 10 years, said young people routinely pre-planned their alcohol use before a big event.

In one study, Prof Hutton and her colleagues examined the use of alcohol and the experiences and beliefs of eight young people who regularly attended outdoor music festivals.

“Participants identified that using alcohol before the event reflected normal practice for young people in how they prepare to go out,” Prof Hutton said.

“Pre-drinking or ‘pre-loading’ was also seen as a way of coping with the social aspects of the outdoor music festivals as well as fitting in with peers and having fun. Even though some participants stated that they pre-loaded to save money at the event, others reported that taking large amounts of money and drinking all day at outdoor music festivals was the norm.”

Prof Hutton said her research found the majority of those transported to hospital from music festivals were young people who had consumed excessive amounts of alcohol.

Her research also showed “hero-like status” was given to those who consumed large amounts of alcohol.

“Alcohol is more readily available, legal and socially acceptable. Unfortunately, we normalise the use of alcohol to celebrate in Australia,” Prof Hutton said.

A NSW Health spokeswoman said the department continued to work with NSW Liquor and Gaming and event promoters to implement a number of alcohol harm reduction initiatives at music festivals.

These include the availability of free water, the sale of low-alcohol beverages and the responsible service of alcohol as a licence condition.

In the lead-up to the Australia Day long weekend, the NSW Government committed nearly $ 500,000 to high-level critical care medical teams, roving peer educators and additional free water at the three “high risk” festival events.

Peer educators were engaged at the festivals to provide assistance to intoxicated patrons and support them in “chill out” tents or take them to the medical service if needed.

A NSW Police spokeswoman said intoxicated individuals acting illegally or antisocially would be dealt with accordingly and either charged or ejected from events.

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