Jen Ross-King (right) lost her daughter Alex (left) and does not want any deaths. (Supplied: Jen Ross-King)
The mother of a teenage girl who died of a drug overdose at a music festival in January has called for urgent action to prevent more deaths.
- Alex Ross-King died after taking three doses of MDMA before attending the FOMO festival in January
- Her mother, Jen Ross-King, is calling for a change in policy to prevent more deaths
- Advocates say pill testing could save lives but there is little political will for change
“I’m sitting here because of what happened to Alex, but it’s about everyone else’s kids now,” Jen Ross-King told 7.30.
“I can’t change what happened to Alex, but I can sure as hell change it for someone else.”
Nineteen-year-old Alex Ross-King died after she took almost three doses of MDMA before attending the FOMO festival.
After initially taking one capsule before leaving for the festival at Sydney’s Parramatta Park, she then took another two capsules before entering the festival.
A NSW inquest into her death, and five others at music festivals, heard that she took the extra doses because she was scared of being caught by police.
Ms Ross-King wants widespread change to how festivals operate but is waiting until the coroner makes final recommendations before backing any solution.
“It has to stop. That’s it,” she said.
“It ends now, with Alex.”
‘Alex didn’t go to the festival to not come home’
Jen Ross-King believes Alex would have used pill testing if it had been available. (ABC News)
Over the weekend, Ms Ross-King went to the Splendour in the Grass music festival, held near Byron Bay, to see how it handled the issue of drugs.
The festival has been running for almost 20 years and has not had a fatal drug overdose.
But drug use is still an issue. At this year’s festival, NSW police said that more than “350 drug detections were recorded with more than 2.8kg of illicit drugs seized, predominantly MDMA tablets and cannabis”, with charges laid against 200 people.
Ms Ross-King said that while she understood the police presence at the event, she was worried about how sniffer dogs were used.
“The police dogs had homed in on a young girl, which I have to say, I felt a little bit ill in the stomach. As a parent looking at her, she’s someone’s daughter, and she may never even tell her parents that something, whatever happened afterwards, happened,” Ms Ross-King said.
“What I found even more confronting was a family walking past with, you know, maybe an 8- and a 12-year-old, watching this young girl being escorted away with the police.
“And they were constantly looking and watching. And I’m looking and I’m going, ‘what is happening here?'”
Jen Ross-King went to this year’s Splendour in the Grass to see how they deal with the problem of drugs. (Supplied: Splendour in the Grass/Stephen Booth)
Ms Ross-King also saw a demonstration by proponent David Caldicott showing how pill testing works.
She believes that if pill testing was available her daughter would have used it, and she does not think widespread testing would encourage drug taking.
“They just say this will harm you. And they say that straight up, there’s no green light from what I’m led to believe. There’s nothing green in that tent at all. It’s all white, yellow, and red,” Ms Ross-King said.
“It doesn’t matter if [drugs] are OK or not, they’re being taken and they’re being consumed, and they’re being consumed by people who think they know what they’re doing. And they don’t.
“They’ve tried to educate themselves, because no-one else is.
“Alex didn’t leave to go to this festival to not come home. That’s not what they do.
“They don’t think it will happen to them. And in most cases, it doesn’t.”
How does pill testing actually work?
Dr David Caldicott gave pill-testing presentations at Splendour in the Grass. (ABC News: Michael Atkin)
Dr Caldicott is an emergency doctor at Canberra’s Calvary Hospital and has run two pill-testing trials at music festivals in the ACT.
Among the crowd for his demonstration of pill testing at Splendour in the Grass was Harriet Grahame, the NSW deputy coroner, who is running the inquest into the six music festival deaths.
“I think it’s very important to show both the coroner and the dignitaries associated with her and the general public what pill testing actually is, rather than how it’s reported, and certainly reported by our elected colleagues,” Dr Caldicott told 7.30.
“We use a system called medically supervised field testing, we see it very much as a health initiative.
“It’s supervised by medical practitioners within the medical precinct. It’s run in parallel with whatever law enforcement wants to do. So, it’s not one or the other.
“A young person in possession of a sample that they’re apprehensive about would present to us. And we would offer to test their sample and talk to them about what that sample meant for them, and what the outcomes could be if they can choose.”
The system operates on white, yellow and red flags for pills that are tested.
“A white is when a product is identified that is what the punter thought it was,” Dr Caldicott said.
“A yellow is assigned to a product that is substantially different, in effect, to what the punter thought it was, and that in its own right can be quite dangerous, if consumed unwittingly within the festival environment.
“There are definitely drugs which are considerably more dangerous than others, and when we identify one of those drugs we assign it a red category. These are some drugs which are well-known to be associated with significant harm and death overseas.
“What we say is that, right at the very get-go, there’s nothing about what we’re doing here that is telling you ‘that is safe, or that it is good’.”
According to Dr Caldicott, not only are Australian jurisdictions not doing enough to minimise harm, some of the actions being taken are actually doing harm.
“The approaches that we’re taking, in particularly that New South Wales is taking, of using multiple sniffer dogs, using saturation policing, these are now well described by academics as being associated with harm,” Dr Caldicott said.
“So, not only are we not implementing the approaches we should be doing, we are implementing approaches which are, in fact, a waste of the taxpayer’s money and are harmful to festivals.”
Medics need to work quickly to help manage overdoses
Stephen Barnes says MDMA overdoses need quick attention from medical staff. (ABC News: Amy Donaldson)
Stephen Barnes runs the busy medical tent during the festival.
It is an extensive operation which includes dozens of medics and paramedics, six acute beds, eight short-stay beds, resuscitation bays, isolation rooms and a chill-out room.
He says when someone comes into his tent with an MDMA overdose, medical staff must work quickly.
“With MDMA, it can make your body temperature rise, so our concern is that if it rises and it stays risen, then you can end up in a life-threatening condition,” he told 7.30.
“Our treatment plan focuses around reducing the stimulus and also reducing the heat in their body.
“We have fluids that we can put through them, we’ve got ice packs, we’ve got fans that we can then use to cool that person down, and also recognising that they’re in that state and making a rapid decision to send them off to hospital by ambulance.”
Political will opposed to pill testing
Andrew Laming, at Splendour in the Grass, thinks pill testing is not the right policy for music festivals. (ABC News)
Political opposition to pill testing remains widespread, with governments in Victoria and NSW already ruling it out.
Federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming is an ophthalmologist and disagrees with the medical bodies, including the Australian Medical Association, which have backed a pill-testing trial.
“A huge proportion of Australia will be horrified that the state is going to step in and start testing pills in a place like a music festival that’s ultimately meant to be drug-free,” he told 7.30.
He is concerned that testing could give someone confidence to take a dangerous drug.
“One day, a tested pill will lead to a death,” he said.
“And at that point, we’ll have a massive indemnity challenge in civil lawsuits, because of the provision of information around the pill that can lead to an overdose death, even though it’s pure MDMA, and that has yet to happen.”
Festival organiser Jessica Ducrou says there needs to be a policy change around drugs. (Supplied: Splendour in the Grass/Mitch Lowe)
Jessica Ducrou, co-founder and chief executive of Splendour in the Grass, said there is a need for change — and not just at music festivals.
“I think this is a health issue for our young people, wherever they choose to take drugs,” she told 7.30.
“In saying that, sticking your head in the sand and pretending that it doesn’t exist is not going to change where we are now.
“We need to introduce harm minimisation messages, there needs to be an education program, there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done around what, quite obviously, is serious cultural change.”
Ms Ross-King wants to wait for the findings of the coronial inquest before she backs any solution.
But her message is that the current approach remains dangerous and is unacceptable.
“Something needs to happen before the next festival season, because if it doesn’t it’s going to be a hotter summer, and it’s not going to end well. It really isn’t,” she said.
“I don’t hold anybody responsible — Alex is responsible. She’s not here to take that responsibility, but I am.
“And I’m taking it because as a mum, as a parent, that’s what we do.
“I can’t lose any more.
“I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my only child, and I have nothing else to lose.”
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