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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

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, 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.

Sup­port builds

This news gen­er­ated in­ter­est around Aus­tralia and Adri­ana’s phone started ring­ing again. She asked her 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

“I made my son a prom­ise that I’m de­ter­mined to keep.”

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