In the wake of last weekend’s Sydney leg of the Stereosonic festival, the family of 25-year-old Sylvia Choi must now come to terms with her death after an overdose of what the media are calling ‘ecstasy and MDMA’. It was the fifth death by overdose at an NSW music festival in the past year.
Once again the rest of us will hear the lament of police about how not enough is being done and how stupid festival-goers are, the reports about what a bright and normal person Sylvia was, commentary on the problems of recreational drugs in society and the social media posts from people who’ve never taken drugs asking why people feel the need to do so at music festivals.
Sylvia’s death, just like all the others, is a tragedy. A life cut short is never a good thing.
What confuses me is the invisible line between idiocy and misfortune, where someone who is apprehended by police can be called an idiot, but if they get in, take the drugs and die, they’re a victim and a tragic loss.
Ultimately, the accountability falls on the person that decided to take the drugs, not the police, not the festival organisers and not even the dealers – the decision to purchase and consume drugs fall to the person in question; in this case, A QUALIFIED PHARMACIST. If anyone was able to comprehend the risks involved in taking chemicals, it was someone in Ms Choi’s position.
If people as smart and informed as Ms Choi aren’t deterred by the illegality of their actions or the uncertainty about what they’re taking and are still willing to risk incarceration or death for the sake of narcotic consumption, perhaps it’s time for a rethink of the way we approach these issues.
Drugs and music festivals go together like a hot pie and tomato sauce. The epitome of music festivals – Woodstock – is as associated with narcotic and hallucinogenic consumption as it is with Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne and the like are as famous for their ability to consume massive amounts of illegal substances as they are for their music. They’re revered for it! Traditional cultures imbibed drugs and danced around to drum circles for aeons. It’s a timeless relationship that isn’t going anywhere, no matter how much the law tries to say otherwise. Music and drugs go together. If you don’t understand it, it’s because you’ve never tried it, which is absolutely fine too!
Accounts from the weekend suggest that “80 to 90 per cent” of attendees at Stereosonic were under the influence of drugs. That’s probably an overestimation, but not by that much. People were even arrested days before for entering the festival site and trying to bury or hide their drugs in concealed spaces so that they wouldn’t have to risk taking them through the gates. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – even if that way appears pretty damn stupid.
I’m not suggesting that state and/or federal governments rush through legislation permitting the consumption of Class A substances. What is needed is a rational response, an increase in awareness and an acceptance of the fact that people are going to take drugs whether or not they’re ‘allowed to’.
Here are some suggestions;
Put up signs, not only pointing people to their nearest St John’s (or whatever PRIVATE CONTRACTOR your festival goes with) but to other areas that are less crowded and don’t overload the senses, so that if someone starts to feel unwell or anxious they can seek appropriate treatment or just chill the fuck out on a beanbag. Put up signs with pictures listing ‘things to watch out for’, to promote not just self-awareness but awareness of those around you. Most loved-up, drugged-up people at music festivals are inclined to look after each other. Get some graphic artists (there are literally thousands of them) to come up with some awesome designs that promote these messages and list the signs, because if it’s cool and visual or ‘trippy’, people who are high are going to be more inclined to look at it, engage with it and to absorb the messages. Get some people in silly costumes to go around checking on people – those guys who dress as the sperms and hand out free condoms always get plenty of love at festivals, so why not some people dressed like the Beatles or psychedelic Dame Edna’s handing out info on awareness or little bottles of water? They’ll be the life of the party, and could save a few along the way, even if they have to sit through some strange and seemingly never-ending conversations.
Another great alternative is to STOP OVERCHARGING FOR DRINKS. Hydration is a major issue when it comes to recreational drug use and subsequent overdose, but most people aren’t keen to pay $5 or more for a bottle of water. Should they be? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that they will. Having a few randomly placed water tanks around a festival site does not justify a price hike.
Nor are the majority of people particularly keen to pay somewhere between $8-$15 for mid-strength beer and cans of alco-pop, especially when it means they have to stand in line for half an hour or more to access the one or two ATM’s festivals typically offer. Some will, and it’s normally enough to cover the costs of those who decide not to, but it’s hard to deny that such extortionate prices are driving some young people to buy drugs instead. Why spend $50 on enough beer to get you slightly pissed and one water when you can spend less than that on a couple of pills that will keep you going all day, off guts (are the kids still saying that?). Yes, you’re stopping people from abusing alcohol, but there’s more to it than that. Young people (and even many old ones) like to get fucked up, and music festivals still represent the epitome of hedonistic opportunity, so instead of denying it and trying to stop it, how about working out ways to ensure everything is done with at least some responsibility? It works in Amsterdam!
There are as many people out taking drugs on any given weekend in any Australian CBD, but these people are in air-conditioned venues with breathing space, reasonably priced drinks, and they’re at night. It’s vastly different to the heat-affected all-day effort festival attendees put themselves through, along with 40,000 other people, crammed into stadiums and barricades with little room to move your arms let alone dance. Yes, there are indoor stages, misting areas and other spots, but the headliners only play in the arenas and if you want to get near the front for those final few bands, or even on the fence, it can mean getting yourself in position hours before and not surrendering that spot no matter how intense the sun gets.
People who take recreational drugs are from all walks of life. From those fresh out of high school to musclebound deadshits, from bogans with rat’s tails to responsible parents with families at home, even fully-qualified pharmacists it seems. It’s not just one type of person that chooses to risk incarceration and their health, there are many. Some are more responsible than others, but drugs don’t turn people into dickheads, those people were already dickheads before they took the drugs.
For police, politicians, parents and festival organisers to moan about it and use terrifying rhetoric while not taking any steps to help prevent tragedy other than ramping up police presence and hoping fear will do the trick is just as stupid as some perceive the choice to use drugs is.
The choice to use recreational drugs lies with the consumer and the consumer alone, but fear won’t help. With the right information, support and maturity from all parties, maybe these tragic instances can be reduced in the future. They probably won’t though. Sylvia Choi made her choice and suffered because of it, but if something can be learned and changes can be made, then perhaps her death and the others that have occurred in this state recently won’t be in vain.