By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Following the tragic drug-related deaths of two young people at the Defqon.1 festival in September, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel with investigating how to improve safety at events like music festivals.
And in true Coalition style, Ms Berejiklian announced last week that her government had accepted in-principle the recommendations made by the panel in its report, which means she’s going to double down on failing drug war tactics.
The premier explained that in order to create a safer environment for young people at festivals, the government will be creating a new offence that will make dealers responsible for the deaths of people who buy drugs from them and subsequently die.
As well, to “ensure that offenders face swift and certain justice”, the government will be trialling on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for festivalgoers found in possession of illegal drugs.
Although the initial reaction to the announcement was disbelief, it’s hardly too surprising. The expert panel was comprised of NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority chair Philip Crawford.
And what’s more, the panel made clear in their report that Berejiklian had told them prior to their investigation that her government “has no tolerance for illegal drugs and pill testing is not within the terms of reference”.
President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Dr Alex Wodak stressed that increased policing won’t achieve its stated aims. He outlined that “senior and experienced police” have been asserting that “saturation policing doesn’t have a significant effect on drug availability”.
The doctor said that initially this admission came from retired police, including commissioners. But, these days, serving officers are beginning to admit saturation policing doesn’t work. “The political elite have also known this for at least a decade or two,” he added.
Indeed, there’s a growing number of former high-level police officers calling for a different approach to be taken to illicit substances than the one the NSW premier advocates for. The list includes former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer and ex-NSW police commissioner Ken Moroney.
And Dr Wodak further pointed out that “the two deaths that sparked this reaction occurred when saturation policing – plus sniffer dogs – had already been provided”. There was a huge police presence at the Defqon.1 festival in September, with 180 police officers deployed at the event.
Increased penalties = increased profits
The expert panel’s seventh recommendation was that a new offence of drug supply causing death be introduced. The premier said she believes the maximum penalty for this crime should be set between 10 years, and the 25 years for manslaughter.
But, Dr Wodak warns that this proposed law is likely to make selling drugs more profitable. “Dealers will raise their prices to compensate for the increased risk,” he explained. “If drug prices rise, so will profits.”
And in his estimate, once the profits increase, then they’ll be more “wannabe drug dealers” lining up as “the higher profits justify the increased risk”. And as more drug dealers appear on the scene, the obvious result would be that more drugs are sold.
“The drug market is the Achilles heel of drug prohibition,” Dr Wodak added. “That’s why political conservatives were so prominent in early support for drug law reform.”
Increasing the harms at festivals
The use of highly-ineffective drug detection dogs at music festivals has long been criticised, as their presence actually leads festivalgoers to partake in dangerous drug taking practices.
These include preloading, which is when an individual takes all of their drugs prior to an event to avoid being found in possession of them. And another detrimental effect is panic overdosing, which is when a person consumes all of their drugs at once on seeing a sniffer dog operation.
Now, if some young people attending a festival are aware that there will be police officers making the rounds of the event issuing $500 fines for drug possession, it might seem like a good idea to take all of their drugs before arrival, which, of course, could lead to overdose.
And it also seems very likely that the immediacy of an on-the-spot fine could further compel an individual who’s holding drugs at a festival and spots a drug dog to take an amount of drugs at once that could prove fatal so as to avoid the penalty.
An evidence-based approach
“Drug law enforcement has a poor record. It’s usually ineffective, often counterproductive and always expensive. In contrast, harm reduction is just the opposite,” Dr Wodak continued. “So, pill testing has a much better chance of saving lives and money.”
These days, the majority of Australians support the roll out of pill testing services at music festivals. These setups allow festivalgoers to have their drugs tested by laboratory-grade equipment and then make an informed decision about whether to take them.
The first government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trial took place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April this year. The drugs of two individuals who used the service were found to contain a substance that can prove lethal, meaning the service potentially saved both their lives.
European nations have been employing this life-saving method for decades now. In countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain individuals can have their drugs checked at events or at permanent sites. In fact, the European Union has produced pill testing best practice guidelines.
So, many were dumbfounded when the state’s top cop Mick Fuller got on the microphone last week and stated that pill testing was a “myth” and there was “no science behind” it.
The broken law enforcement approach
Dr Wodak said that Ms Berejiklian antics were reminiscent of the famous nursery rhyme, where extra resources were thrown at something that cannot be fixed. “The Premier will now double the King’s horses and double the King’s men to see whether she can put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
“This isn’t a policy,” the doctor went on. “It’s a political strategy.” And he questioned whether it was her lack of support in the Coalition or her imminent defeat in the next election that was leading her to conduct this “drug policy grandstanding”.
“Whatever the reason is it’s hard to believe she really expects this is going to make any difference to protecting young people,” Dr Wodak concluded.