The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has dismissed out-of-hand a coroner’s recommendation to introduce pill testing at music festivals in the state, before the official release of the findings.
In a move labelled “disrespectful” by the parent of one overdose victim, on Wednesday Berejiklian repeated her opposition to pill testing on the basis it would give a “false sense of security” to festival-goers, and her belief that young people should simply not take drugs.
“We think [pill testing] gives people a false sense of security in that, unfortunately – and our heart goes out to families who have lost loved ones under these circumstances – but unfortunately it has been found that at times it is the pure drug, it the pure MDMA, that is killing young people,” she told the ABC on Wednesday.
“And we would say to young people: ‘Do not take these drugs because you or your loved ones could suffer as a result.’”
On Tuesday leaked recommendations from the deputy state coroner, Harriet Grahame, revealed that she would urge the state government to allow pill testing at music festivals, scrap sniffer dogs and instruct police not to punish people caught possessing drugs for personal use.
She also called for police to limit the use of strip searches, and for the government to pay to establish a permanent drug-checking facility outside the festival context.
The recommendations – which were not due to be published for several weeks – were leaked to the Sydney tabloid newspaper the Daily Telegraph, which has editorialised heavily against them.
The coroner’s inquest was held over four weeks in July and September and examined six MDMA-related deaths – of people aged between 19 and 23 – at music festivals between December 2017 and January.
Julie Tam, whose 22-year-old son Joshua’s death was one of the six investigated by the coroner, labelled the premier’s dismissal of pill testing disrespectful, and called for her to listen to what experts were saying.
“You sort of think, in many ways, it’s very much a disrespect to the loss of our children,” she told Guardian Australia.
“There’s not much that comes form the loss of a child, but at the very least I’d like to think that it shines a light on the potential for there to be change. Obviously what’s happening now is not working, and if we don’t change we’re going to continue to see young people fall by the way side.”
Tam said she was disappointed in the premier’s refusal to consider the recommendations.
“It’s disappointing to think that following the amount of effort and money invested into the coronial inquest into the deaths of all of our children that the premier has basically said she’s not interested,” she said.
“I just think that’s such a waste, I really do. The coroner is paid to be impartial, to gather information based on what the experts say, and for the NSW government to just say ‘nope, we’re not changing our minds’ because what she’s recommended might be unpalatable to them, I just struggle to find a word to describe it.”
He was one of six music festivals deaths investigated by the NSW coroner during a four-week inquest in July and September.
Julie Tam said told Guardian Australia on Wednesday that
Berejiklian has maintained her steadfast opposition to pill testing against the weight of an increasing body of experts who say it should be considered, including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Medical Association and the former Australian federal police commissioner Mick Palmer.
On Tuesday the Uniting Church of NSW became the latest organisation to back pill testing, saying it would like to host a trial in the state.
“The church is a strong advocate of changing our current approach by offering people who use drugs help and treatment rather than criminalising them and driving them into the shadows,” said the Rev Simon Hansford, moderator of the church in NSW.
“Pill testing can be the first opportunity someone has to talk to a health professional about drug use and its inherent risks.”
It comes at as the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s latest Australian drug trends report, released on Wednesday, showed 45% of ecstasy users reported already testing their drugs using less reliable DIY kits.
The inquest also heard evidence that a heavy police presence at music festivals could increase the danger of drug-related harm.
Alex Ross-King, 19, died from a drug overdose at a music festival in NSW in January after taking an unusually high amount of MDMA before arriving at the venue because she was afraid of being caught with the drugs by police.
Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer, told the inquest at the time that the practice was common among young people seeking “to avoid being caught by police and charged with a criminal offence”.
While she said police and security often played a “vital role” in responding in the case of a medical emergency, the “presence and behaviours” of police and security can “exacerbate the risks associated with drug use”.
Despite that, police, backed by the state government, have resisted any attempts to limit the use of sniffer dogs or strip searches. Instead Berejiklian will attempt to reimpose a controversial festival licensing system overturned by the NSW parliament last month.
“Out of the 90-odd music festivals we hold across the state, for the vast majority it’s business as usual. They do a great job and we encourage people to go and support those wonderful festivals,” she said on Wednesday.
“But for 11 of them that are high risk, they need to have safety management plans in place; they need to have adequate medical staff, adequate security on site.”