NSW coroner says punitive policing tactics increase risk of drug deaths and calls for reform

Michael McGowan
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

The use of high-visibility policing tactics such as drug dogs and “large scale” strip searching at music festivals “increases rather than decreases” the risks associated with drugs, the New South Wales deputy coroner has said.

In landmark findings published on Friday, Harriet Grahame recommended pill-testing be introduced and said she was satisfied there was “significant evidence” that “intensive and punitive drug policing operations” were increasing “drug-related risks and harm”.

Drug dogs had “the capacity to cause harm without strong evidence it is effective in reducing overall drug supply”.

“I am of the firm view there is sound evidence that high-visibility policing and the use of drug dogs is a harmful intervention,” she said.

Related: 'She grabbed my bra': NSW woman says being strip-searched at 15 had a traumatic effect

The “wholesale practice of strip-searching young people” was of “grave concern”, and its use to target people suspected of drug possession was “out of line with the purposes” of the legislation.

Grahame recommended a pill-testing trial be introduced both at music festivals and in the community in time for this summer’s festivals.

“At the end of my reflection I am in no doubt whatsoever there is sufficient evidence to support a drug-checking trial in this state,” she said.

“Of course drug-checking is not a magic solution to these tragic deaths; of course its introduction will not guarantee further deaths will not occur. Drug-checking is simply an evidence-based harm-reduction strategy that should be trialled as soon as possible in NSW.”

In July Grahame examined the deaths of six young people who died as a result of MDMA toxicity or complications of MDMA use at music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.

Before the five MDMA-related deaths at music festivals in NSW last summer, there had been only 12 across Australia in the previous decade.

On Friday Grahame thanked the parents of the six young people, and said each of the deaths was a “tragedy”.

Nathan Tran, 18, Diana Nguyen, 21, Joseph Pham, 23, Callum Brosnan, 19, Alexandra Ross-King, 19, and Joshua Tam, 22, all died from MDMA toxicity or complications of MDMA use at music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.

Related: NSW Labor calls for review of strip-search laws, asking 'where's the justification?'

As well as those fatalities, there were 29 pre-hospital intubations at 25 music festivals in the state in 2018-2019, 25 drug-related intensive care admissions, and at least an additional 23 drug-related hospital admissions.

The bulk of Grahame’s recommendations were leaked in a draft of her final report obtained by the Daily Telegraph after it was circulated to government departments including the health department and NSW police.

Immediately after Grahame handed down her findings the NSW commissioner of police, Mick Fuller, released a statement saying he “strongly defended” the suggestion police were “implicit” in the deaths.

He also said music festivals “create a concentrated market for drug supply and organised criminal groups”.

“Our officers see the adverse effects of all forms of drugs on a daily basis, and our submissions to the inquest relied on a collective experience in relation to drug use and supply,” he said.

“From a policing perspective, we remain committed to reducing the supply of illicit drugs throughout NSW, including at music festivals.”

At the time, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, dismissed the recommendation to introduce pill-testing on the basis it would give a “false sense of security” to festival-goers.

Outside the coroner’s court on Friday, Jennie Ross-King, the mother of Alex Ross-King, urged Berejiklian to “listen to the experts” and introduce pill-testing before the summer.

“Pill-testing is available now. These guys are sitting there waiting for a phone call to turn up,” she said.

Ross-King said the coroner’s recommendations would “save someone’s life” if the government listened.

“We can finally say now, well, you know, she’s got the evidence she hasn’t had previously and I think it’s important [that] she can make an informed decision,” she said.

Telling young people “just say no” to drugs did not work.

“We have to educate ourselves as parents,” she said. “Because I didn’t know anything, I now know that. Just say no, they’re bad, they can harm you. I said all those things, I said everything I was educated as a parent to say to my daughter and it didn’t work.”

Another mother, Julie Tam, urged Berejiklian not to “waste this opportunity”.

“None of us standing here in front of you today want to be here,” she said. “We would give anything to have our children back [but] as parents we stand before you and urge you to embrace the recommendations and implement them.”

Grahame also called for police to limit the use of strip searches to people suspected of supply, and for the government to pay to establish a permanent drug-checking facility outside the festival context.

“Given the evidence of a link between drug dogs and more harmful means of consumption”, Grahame said, the “model of policing” at music festivals should be changed.

“Given the harm caused by police strip-searching for possession of drugs” including “more harmful means of consumption”, the NSW police commissioner should amend practices to limit their use to cases where a person is suspected of a supply offence or “there are reasonable grounds the strip search is necessary to prevent an immediate risk to a persons safety or immediate loss of evidence”.