Another festival, another overdose.
On New Year’s Day, the Sydney music community was shaken by the news that a 23-year-old woman had been hospitalised after consuming MDMA at the Field Day music festival.
Thankfully, the woman was discharged earlier this week and is expected to make a full recovery.
The incident is the latest in a string of drug-related overdoses, with two revellers tragically passing away after consuming drugs at Stereosonic.
In response, the NSW government is reportedly considering banning festivals altogether.
Speaking to the media earlier this week, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant said that music festivals could ‘potentially be shut down,’ and ‘ultimately, if the events continue to cause deaths…the festivals will write their own script.’ He has expressed support for the idea of music festivals being made a thing of the past.
But the proposal has attracted widespread criticism from musicians, festival organisers and patrons alike.
Organisers Hit With Criticism
Following the latest overdose, Police Minister Grant lashed out at festival organiser Fuzzy – which runs Field Day, Harbourlife and Listen Out – saying:
‘Festival organisers have a duty of care to look after patrons and the ball is now in their court to tell worried parents and grieving families what steps they are taking to improve the situation.
The government is reviewing the system of regulating events held on public land, including the process for granting permits for events such as music festivals.’
But Fuzzy has hit back by saying that it, ‘has always made health and safety a priority which is approved by government stakeholders and also communicated to our customers via ticket holder emails, patron maps, the event app and dedicated event website.’
Those who regularly attend music festivals would no doubt be aware of the lengths organisers take to make events safe for all parties. Triple J’s Hack program reported that at this year’s Field Day event, there were 34 medical staff, 6 ambulance staff, and 26 Red Cross harm minimisation staff in attendance – as well as three dedicated “chill out” bars and 76 free water points (vastly more the 9 that are required by the festival’s liquor licence).
Is There Really a Drug Problem?
Festival organisers also deny that drugs are a major problem, saying that the number of patrons seeking medical attention for alcohol consumption far exceeds those seeking treatment for drugs.
Approximately 28,000 people attended Field Day this year – and over 200 are estimated to have received medical attention at the event, with five hospitalised.
But of those, only 13 (or 0.0005% of attendees) sought treatment for drug use.
Alcohol is widely available at the events, and an estimated 14 people sought treatment for intoxication.
Field Day organisers contend media statistics are an inaccurate representation of medical assistance provided at the event. According to Fuzzy, around 180 people sought treatment for minor injuries which were not alcohol or drug related – such as minor cuts, sunscreen in eyes, and paracetamol – not for drug use.
Is Banning Festivals the Right Solution?
As discussed in many of our previous blogs, the Australian government has backed the prohibition of drugs for decades; spending billions of taxpayer dollars on ineffective advertising campaigns, police and law enforcement efforts.
Despite this, there has been no reduction in the number of people using drugs: the 2015 Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 27% of Australians aged between 20 and 29 had used drugs in the past year, with 8% using ecstasy.
At this year’s Field Day festival, 214 people were charged with drug offences, with three charged with drug supply. This was despite attendees being warned about the presence of police officers and drug detection dogs well in advance.
Drug experts concede that festivalgoers will continue to use drugs despite the risks. Will Tregonning from drug education group Unharm told the media:
‘People are going to use drugs anyway, not knowing what they’re taking. We want to provide that at-risk group of people, already about to use drugs, info about the drugs they’re intending to consume, and give them info around the risks of consuming that substance.’
However, many have questioned the utility of banning music festivals altogether, given the fact that the vast majority of people attend and have a great time without incident. The government has been asked to rethink its approach by holding an inquiry into festival deaths, instead of rushing to ban them altogether.
Acting Opposition Leader Linda Burney has voiced her support for an inquiry, saying:
‘Tough talking is all very well but the talking needs to be done with people who understand the challenges, who organise festivals, and to young people…Banning festivals is not the answer but understanding the challenges [is], and the parliamentary inquiry will provide that.’
She says that alternative solutions, such as better education about the dangers of using drugs, as well as drug detection procedures, should be examined by the inquiry.
Others have suggested that banning music festivals could do more harm than good – Australian electronic band The Presets released a statement on social media this week calling idea ‘nuts.’
Many believe that banning festivals would result in illegal underground festivals flourishing – where there would be no medical supervision or drug detection operations.
Deaths due to drug use are an obvious concern, but banning festivals does not appear to be the answer.
Before jumping the gun, perhaps the government should consider implementing policies which treat drug use as a health concern, rather than a crime – such as pill testing, which has already proven to be effective way of reducing drug related deaths at festivals in many European countries.