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'More Dangerous Drugs Than Ever': Why Are So Many Young Australians Dying?

Decades of failure in public policy and a drug market "more dangerous than ever" have contributed to a "perfect storm" of festival summer deaths, experts say.

Alex Ross-King, 19, became the fifth person to die from a suspected drug overdose in four months after attending a NSW music festival.

Along with Joseph Pham, 23, Josh Tam, 22, Diana Nguyen, 21, and Callum Brosnan, 19, Ross-King joined an exclusive club no young person wants or ever expects to join -- her death has reignited the debate around illicit drug pill testing, but it's also sparked another question: why NSW?

Left to right: Joseph Pham, Alex Ross-King, Josh Tam, Callum Brosnan. Not pictured: Diana Nguyen.

Young people take drugs at music festivals in every state and territory around Australia, yet we're not seeing the same number of deaths in Queensland or Victoria.

Do people in NSW simply take more drugs? Different types of drugs? Is it just bad luck?

The answer is far less simple that we'd like, said Dr. David Caldicott, a harm minimisation advocate who was behind Australia's first successful pill testing trial.

"We're naturally looking for one reason why this is happening now, but the reality is, drug-related deaths are very complicated things," he told 10 daily.

Population figures in NSW certainly contribute in part, as does the concentrated number of music festivals in the state.

Soaring temperatures in Australian summers make it a particularly dangerous country to consume drugs, said David Caldicott.

The temperature is another factor: drugs and heat do not mix well, and some of the festivals -- particularly Defqon 1 and Lost Paradise -- coincided with heat waves, with temperatures soaring into the low thirties.

“The combination of hot days plus people taking multiple or high-doses of MDMA can lead to severe poisoning and even death -- sometimes even one dose can be fatal," warned NSW Health's chief health officer Dr. Kerry Chant this week.

In fact, overheating is a common factor in people dying after taking MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy.

"It's very, very rare for someone to die of MDMA toxicity," Jarryd Bartle, a drug policy consultant and lecturer at RMIT University, told 10 daily.

"Hot summers are definitely a risk factor."

But it cannot be overlooked that Australia has implemented decades of drug policy that has not only failed to prevent harm, but made drugs more dangerous than ever, argues Caldicott.

The iron law of prohibition argues that "the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs". Photo: Getty.

"The Australian drug market is like a tube of toothpaste," he said.

"If you squeeze too hard on one side, something else is going to come out the other side -- and you might not like what that looks like."

In this case, the 'other side' is a changing drug market so diverse that even hardcore researchers have trouble keeping up with everything available. Two decades ago, they were looking at around 10-20 drugs of concern. That number has since exploded to more than 750.

"The diversity and the heterogeneity of these drugs is just massive," Caldicott said.

It's called the 'iron law of prohibition', a term coined by Richard Cowan in 1986. It posits that the harder you clamp down on the supply of a drug, the purer that drug becomes.

"It's simply economics. And if there's a demand -- and god knows there's a demand in Australia -- if you clamp down on supply, the suppliers will make it purer, to make it easier to ship around the place."

The shift over time to a greater use of capsules and crystal, and a declining use of crystal, may be partially explained by differences in perceived purity, according to the NDARC.

Almost one in five people (18 percent) will take a capsule with unknown substances in them, according to a 2018 report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. That figure has almost doubled from one in ten participants reporting taking unknown substances in 2013.

However, this week NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian again rejected calls to implement pill testing, saying she fears it would do more harm than good.

"In the absence of evidence, we need to keep sending out the strongest message: that taking these illicit drugs kills lives, kills loved ones, and we ask young people not to do it," she told reporters on Sunday.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is firmly against pill testing. Photo: 10 News First.

However, research suggests that pill testing is an effective way to educate people who would otherwise not listen to safety messages -- and that's where the real value lies, said Bartle.

"Not to discount the actual drug checking, but that engagement is where we're going to save lives," he said.

A pill testing trial in the UK in 2016 found that one in five people disposed of their drugs after testing them, while another one in six moderated their consumption.

It's an option NSW opposition leader Michael Daley is willing to explore, this week reaffirming his commitment to holding a drug summit should Labor win the upcoming state election.

"Just saying no is not the answer," he said.

So what is the answer?

A policy that's less about "virtue signalling" and more about nuanced messages for different groups, said Caldicott.

"I don't know if it's laziness or convenience, but there's a strange assumption in Australia that all drug users will respond to the same methods," he said.

Education is great for some people, but it isn't a catch-all approach that will work for all.

"The question I always have for people [who push abstinence only] is, okay, not a bad starting point -- what's your plan b?" said Caldicott.

"What's your next step for the people who decide to take drugs? And at the moment, the NSW plan b is to let them die."

READ MORE: Devastated Family Of Teen Who Died After FOMO Festival Begs Premier For Pill Testing

READ MORE: The Facts: How Pill Testing Would Work In Australia

READ MORE: Here Are Just Some Of The Experts Who Back Pill Testing

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au