grieving mum campaigns for drugtesting services at festivals
After the tragic death of Adriana Buccianti’s son, she became an unlikely champion of pill testing at music festivals. Gary Nunn meets the Aussie grandmother who is pioneering drug law reform.
Every time a young person dies from a drug-related death at an Australian festival, Adriana Buccianti’s phone rings. It has happened consistently since her own son Dan’s drugs-related death at Victoria’s Rainbow Serpent festival in 2012. And it happened in September, when two people died at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival.
“Those calls are never easy,” the Melbourne grandmother admits, sighing. She answers and speaks because she feels like a “lone wolf” on a quest that few took seriously until this year. Adriana, 63, is determined to ensure pill testing services are made available at every Australian festival to keep young people safe and to stop “these senseless deaths”.
“I feel like I’m the only one standing but I’ll do everything in my power to ensure no parent goes through what I did,” she says. “It does get quite lonely out here on my own, and there have been some terribly dark times during the last six years when it has really got to me, but now, suddenly, people are starting to listen. We’re nally turning a corner.”
Adriana’s campaign has come at an immense personal cost. She has faced criticism, both publicly and from within her own family. Opponents try to depict Adriana as irresponsible or condoning illegal drugs use. These include NSW Police Minister Troy Grant. “I’m a thousand per cent against pill testing,” he said this year. “We’re not using taxpayers’ funds ... to provide a qualityassurance model for drug dealers. They talk about avoiding tragic deaths ... don’t take the drug.”
Adriana rolls her eyes at that quote. “This is the reality of what’s going on in young people’s lives. Every time we bury our head in the sand, the next young person’s death is on our conscience,” she says. “Young people are going to get their hands on this stuff whether we like it or not. We’re just not protecting them.”
Pill testing is the buzz term but Adriana is asking for “festival drug-checking services”, where young people can go to a tent with an amnesty on criminalisation and have their drugs checked for lethal substances. The focus would be on harm minimisation. Dr David Caldicott, an expert in this eld, has shown Adriana kits which can test all drugs for potentially lethal substances, not just pills. That’s important to her as her son was not killed by a single pill.
Mother and son
When Adriana talks about Dan, her face changes. Her brow lifts, her eyes dance and she gesticulates with more enthusiasm. “There was such a special bond there,” she says. A frustration for Adriana is the focus on Dan’s death, rather than his life. “I’m okay to share the details of his death – it could save others – but something gets lost each time I share that story – the detail of his life.”
Today, Adriana wants to reframe that narrative because of the stigma of losing a son to a drug–related death. “I remember, at the beginning, telling one colleague he died in a car crash – something without blame or stigma or anything that would give them a reason to judge him. I cried all the way home. I’ve never been ashamed and have vowed from that day to tell the truth.”
There are better ways to judge Daniel Buccianti, who died just 10 days after his 34th birthday. Dan, a keen basketball player, did well at school and had an inquisitive personality. “He had an extremely high IQ,” Adriana says. “He treated people with kindness and had a spiritual soul. He was a hard worker, as
a chef and as a worker for people with autism.” She laughs at the fond memory of Dan beeping the horn as the bus transporting people with autism slowed as it passed Adriana’s house. “Say hi to Mum,” he’d instruct them, as Adriana came to the window to return their enthusiastic waves. “We were so close – more friends than mother and son,” she says. She sneaks a cheeky grin as she confesses, “I even went to my rst-ever rave with Dan, to see what it was all about. I had such a great time!”
A call for help
In many ways, Adriana is your typical doting nanna who adores her two granddaughters – her daughter’s children. “One day they’ll be old enough to attend these festivals and do the things other teens do. I’m determined they’ll have a safety net,” Adriana says. Her tidy hair, thick-rimmed glasses and diminutive stature belie her toughness, and the power she now holds to reform the “failing” war-on-drugs policy in Australia. As a social worker, she’s well acquainted with the gritty realities of life. Getting people’s heads out of the clouds on a policy that’s “killing our young people” has, over the past six years, become a driving passion. But it wasn’t always this way.
It was while she was caring for her granddaughters that Adriana received a call every parent dreads, but it wasn’t from the police. It was from Dan himself. “Mum, I’ve taken something I’ve never taken before. Please come get me,” he pleaded, sounding confused. Adriana made arrangements to collect him immediately, but when she called back to say she was on her way, things had changed. “I’m ne now,” Dan reassured her. “I’m with friends.” She triple checked with him before turning back.
At 8:30am the following morning, the police were on Adriana’s doorstep with the devastating news. “There’s no way my Dan wanted to leave that festival in a body bag,” Adriana says.
Dan had taken “acid”, a synthetic hallucinogen, but this trip was different from those he’d experienced before. Drug-checking services can check for purity and strength as well as toxicity. Adriana is convinced that, had Dan known how strong or pure the acid was, he may have halved his dose or not taken it at all. “Dan wasn’t irresponsible. If drug-testing were available at that festival, Dan would have done it, and I think he’d still be here with me today.”
Toxicology reports showed Dan had taken various “downers” (sleeping pills) to counteract the effect of the strong acid. He’d lain down in his tent to sleep off the bad trip and never woken up.
Grief enveloped Adriana in a way that still astounds and scares her. Her mourning journey has taken some dark twists. At rst, fury dictated her grief. “I wanted that festival closed down, and tried my best to do it,” she says. “I lost the plot – grief is a bastard.”
Adriana’s grief was compounded by further distress when her daughter stopped speaking to her and cut contact. “It’s grief,” Adriana says. “It makes us act in different ways. She’d lost her big brother and she was angry and confused.” In part, she may have been angry because the festival ticket had been a birthday present for Dan after he’d asked if he could return a watch Adriana had bought for him. The festival ticket was her second choice for his birthday gift. Ten days later, he was dead.
Then tragedy hit again. Months without contact from her daughter felt like losing both her children, and Adriana couldn’t bear it. Her immune system collapsed, she was rushed to hospital and remained in intensive
care, in an induced coma, for 20 days. During those three nerve-wracking weeks, unbeknownst to her, Adriana’s daughter sat by her hospital bed. Doctors said she had just a 15 per cent chance of survival. Her daughter was devastated. “I often think of her getting that news,” Adriana says, her eyes bright with tears. “That she’d lose her mum weeks after losing her big brother. It must’ve been horri c.”
Against all odds, however, Adriana pulled through. And she recovered with a new-found resolve: “Right there and then, I thought, there’s a reason for this. There’s a reason I survived when I wasn’t supposed to. I felt Dan’s presence as I came around and I made my son a promise that I’m determined to keep.” Adriana’s campaign was born.
First, Adriana called the Mayor, appealing to him not to close the festival as she’d initially implored. Next, she met with Rainbow Serpent’s organisers. She started to work with, rather than against them.
In 2013, the rst year after Dan’s death, Adriana was invited to of cially open the Rainbow Serpent festival. For the occasion, she let loose her usually sleek, straightened hair, back-combing it into a voluminous style, and dug out her brightest tie-dye T-shirt. She read a speech about safety to festival-goers, and honoured Dan’s life. Every year, Adriana has returned. She speaks in the dance- safe tent and the medical tent. At 2016’s festival, she requested a private Aboriginal smoking ceremony on the spot where Daniel had camped. “That was so special for me. Dan had died on Aboriginal land and I wanted to pay respects to their traditions, as well as to Dan’s sense of spirituality. It was a lovely moment.”
Aside from her audience at the festival, however, she felt she “may as well have been talking to myself”. Those who didn’t ignore her drug-testing plea actively spoke against it, including her daughter, who “doesn’t agree with my campaign,” she admits. Then, in November 2014, her phone rang. A 19-year-old woman, Georgina Bartter, had died after taking ecstasy at a Sydney festival. Journalists wanted Adriana to comment.
The following year, there were more deaths. “That completely retraumatised me,” Adriana says. “I was also angry. Any politician who is failing to act ... is out of step and has these deaths on their hands. They’re preventable. What we’re currently doing clearly isn’t working.” Frustrated and feeling voiceless, Adriana logged onto online platform Change.org, shared her personal story and created a petition. To date, it has almost 60,000 signatures.
In the 2014 Victorian election, she ran as an independent with a platform of drug law reform. The Victorian government has now promised to test con scated drugs, but that’s not going far enough for Adriana. She is, she says, “still waiting for Premier Daniel Andrews to talk to me. He has two little children. I’d like him to close his eyes and, for just 10 seconds, imagine them never coming back to him, ever. This is my reality every day. Why wouldn’t you do something?”
Earlier this year Canberra festival Groovin the Moo announced Australia’s rst-ever legal festival drug-testing service, after getting ACT government approval. Adriana watched eagerly for the results. Two samples were found to be potentially deadly and the people who had submitted them chose to dispose of their drugs. “That’s two lives saved. I was so emotional when I read that,” Adriana says.
This news generated interest around Australia and Adriana’s phone started ringing again. She asked her Change.org petitioners to lobby key MPs, including the Liberal Party’s Warren Entsch, who had persuaded many in his party to support marriage equality. Within 48 hours he agreed to meet Adriana. Soon after, at Parliament House, he hugged her, looked over her petition and offered to champion her cause. Later, on radio, he asked “How many funerals do we have to go to of people who have taken these substances and found out that they’re not what they were sold?”
Labor Senator Lisa Singh also met Adriana, promising to promote drug testing within her party, and perhaps persuade other state governments to follow the ACT’s lead. Such support was unthinkable three years ago.
Even the former boss of the Federal Police, Mick Palmer, has come on board with pill testing, following those recent two deaths in NSW.
One person still can’t support the campaign, however, and that’s Adriana’s daughter. “She says I have my priorities all wrong,” Adriana says, “but I’ve made my son a promise.”
Whether we agree or disagree with her, Adriana has become the unlikely face of a campaign that has made her unexpected friends and enemies, and saved two lives in the process.
To sign Adriana’s petition, visit change.org/StopDeaths
“I made my son a promise that I’m determined to keep.”