In the space of a year, between December 2017 and January 2019, six young Australians—all under the age of 23—died at music events after taking the drug MDMA.
The statistic caused a nationwide scandal. How could this be happening so frequently—to people so young?
An inquest was held in New South Wales (NSW), a region to the South East of Australia. However, the coroner’s subsequent recommendations to soften drug policy and decriminalise the personal use of illicit drugs have caused an equally large storm.
In particular, the recommendation to fund a drug-checking facility—allowing revellers to anonymously check the quality of the drugs they bring to a music event—has proved most controversial. Supporters stress such ‘pill testing’ removes the danger from an act that is impossible to prevent, which is backed by medical experts and evidence across Europe. Opponents, including NSW’s Head of Government Gladys Berejiklian, argue it creates a permissive environment for undesirable activity and a false sense of security for those consuming drugs. You can still take too much of something, even if it is pure, after all.
Amidst all of this, an unlikely figure has emerged as a champion for the community-based pill testing.
Enter Simon Hansford, reverend at NSW’s Uniting Church.
Reverend Simon Hansford. Credit: Daily Liberal
Uniting Church and pill testing
The Reverend tells Sydney Herald that his organisation has congregations across the city, which will make church sites available if the government permits community-based pill testing.
“Pill testing can be the first opportunity someone has to talk to a health professional about drug use and its inherent risks,” the Reverend told the Herald.
“This advocacy is not just theoretical; we would be willing to work with the authorities to provide a place where drugs can be checked, as part of a wider effort to curb unnecessary deaths at music festivals and elsewhere.”
Given the traditionally prudish societal attitudes to drugs, particularly in Australia—a country that currently permits strip-searches to find drugs at music festivals—the presence of a church leader, a figure usually associated with prohibition, may initially appear confusing.
But, the Reverend’s congregation is decidedly liberal. It already runs a medically supervised injecting centre, having done so for two decades.
Uniting Church also supports same-sex marriage; has opposed a law which would allow religious organisations to discriminate against minority groups; says abortion should not be a criminal issue; and has backed drug decriminalisation laws.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how events will unfold in Australia. Berejiklian’s dismissal of the coroner’s conclusions have been labelled “disrespectful” by the parent of one of the overdose victims. And concerns remain about a commitment to a prohibitive and punitive drug policy: Alex Ross-King reportedly died in January after taking an “unusually high” amount of MDMA before arriving at a music venue, out of fear that she would have been caught with the drugs by the police.
The news follows a gradual understanding of the power of MDMA to help heal trauma: Harvard-educated scientist Rick Doblin has just been given the go-ahead to open legal MDMA clinics in the USA to treat PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).