By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
The NSW Police Force is continuing its assault on music festivals, while the state Coalition government has reinforced its anti-harm minimisation stance at these events.
NSW police were swarming at the recent Listen Out festival in Centennial Park. But they arrested only five individuals on supply charges, while 154 were nabbed for drug possession – an offence which many including a church-led coalition of 60 organisations is currently calling to be decriminalised.
The crackdown at Listen Out comes a fortnight after the police saturation at the Defqon.1 festival, where two young people tragically died of suspected drug overdoses.
180 officers were deployed at Defqon.1, some of whom were accompanied by drug detection dogs. Police were even observed hanging around the front of the medical tent, which is hardly an encouraging sign for any young person needing to seek help after consuming something dodgy.
In response to the deaths at Defqon.1, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel to consider how to improve safety at these events.
But, the members of the panel are hardly an in touch and forward-thinking bunch. It’s comprised of NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW chief medical officer Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor Gaming Authority chairperson Philip Crawford.
And in her wisdom, Ms Berejiklian has stated that the panel will not be considering pill testing as an option, even though it’s an internationally-lauded evidence-based strategy that saves lives. She wants more of the failing drug war approach, such as increasing penalties for drug dealers.
Antiquated drug war tactics
“We have received an influx of messages from people reporting the excessive police presence at the Defqon.1 and Listen Out festivals,” Xiaoran Shi, admin of the Sniff Off campaign Facebook page confirmed. She added that recent NSW police statements confirm this.
Following Defqon.1, a NSW police statement outlined that a multifaceted operation – which included the Nepean LAC, Police Transport Command, North West Metropolitan Region Enforcement Squad, and the Police Dog Unit – was deployed in order to deal with the partying youths.
Ms Shi explained that the reason NSW police gives for using this “increasingly aggressive” approach is “saving lives”.
“This is darkly ironic considering the excessive police presence at Defqon.1 this year, where two young people tragically lost their lives,” Ms Shi continued. “It could not be any clearer that overpolicing does not save lives, it costs lives.”
The NSW Greens anti-drug dog campaign Sniff Off has been monitoring the ridiculously-flawed use of sniffer dogs by NSW police since 2011. Statistics show that from two-thirds to three-quarters of the time that a dog makes an indication a subsequent search results in no illegal drugs being found.
A dangerous aspect of the use of drug dogs is that they actually lead festivalgoers to partake in deadly drug taking practices, such as panic overdosing, where a person panics and swallows all of their drugs at once on seeing a drug detection dog operation to avoid getting busted.
Her head’s stuck in the sand
To lower the dangers of drug overdoses at music festivals there is a simple solution: pill testing. It’s been utilised in certain European countries – such as the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden – since the 1990s. Governments in Europe give this life-saving strategy the official thumbs up.
The ACT government was progressive enough to allow Australia’s first pill testing trial take place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April this year. Of the 128 punters that had their drugs tested, two were found to have drugs that contained a substance that can be lethal.
That’s two lives potentially saved. But, Gladys doesn’t seem to be paying any attention.
“The NSW premier Ms Gladys Berejiklian said that she supports a zero tolerance approach to illicit drugs at youth music festivals,” remarked veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak, “what a pity that she doesn’t support a zero tolerance approach to preventable deaths of healthy young people.”
The president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation suggested that if the premier was really invested in a zero tolerance approach she might consider shutting down NSW needle and syringe programs, as well as the medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross.
“After all, these are both pragmatic and highly effective responses to illicit drugs which are the antithesis of zero tolerance,” said the doctor, who was instrumental in bringing about both these initiatives that have saved thousands of lives in this state since they were implemented.
Looks are more important than lives
But, with NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller making up a third of the members of the music festival “expert panel” and notoriously anti-pill testing police minister Troy Grant still in office, it’s hard to see NSW authorities relenting on their seen-to-be tough on drugs stance.
Ms Shi said that after Defqon.1 and Listen out, “Sniff Off received numerous messages from people reporting that police were standing outside the medical tent, deterring genuinely ill people from seeking medical attention because they feared being questioned or searched by police.”
And to put a further nail in the coffin, Ms Shi explained that there was a stall set up selling drug testing kits at the Defqon.1 festival, and officers who had a bit of time on their hands were hanging around out the front of the store intimidating festivalgoers who were entering it.
Politicking over the lives of youths
As far as Dr Wodak is concerned, the roll out of pill testing is inevitable. And if it isn’t Ms Berejiklian who’s willing to put herself on the line in order to stop the next family’s suffering after their child dies due to a preventable overdose, then it is likely to be the next premier, or the next.
“I am not surprised when older male politicians play the grubby drug politics game,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers, as he recalled US president Richard Nixon winning the 1972 election in a landslide victory just after launching the war on drugs.
“At the risk of sounding sexist, I am surprised when a female politician uses the same grubby political strategy,” the doctor concluded. “Older generations have an absolute responsibility to make sure that they keep younger generations alive. Clearly we are not doing that.”