Splendour In The Grass Proves How Broken Australia’s Drug Laws Are
Our drug policy is hypocritical and puts lives at risk.
Australia’s drug laws have recently been criticised for perpetuating a failed “war on drugs” approach to what should be considered a health issue. Tony Trimingham, a drug law reform campaigner whose son died from a heroin overdose, said earlier this year that “families want services that assist rather than punish and criminalise people in a way that creates lifelong penalties”. And nowhere is our punitive, counter-productive approach to drug use more perfectly encapsulated than the hypocritical, expensive police operations run at music festivals like Splendour in the Grass.
The day after Flume wrapped up this year’s festival, playing a banger of a set to a supremely munted crowd of 20,000 punters, the NSW Police issued a triumphant media release heralding the success of their high-visibility anti-drug operation. The five-day operation included police officers from the local area command, the drug dog unit and the riot squad, and led to the arrest of hundreds of festival goers for drug possession.
All up, 323 individuals were found in possession of drugs including cannabis, ice, MDMA and cocaine. 80 were given cannabis cautions, meaning they weren’t charged with an offence, but more than 200 people were charged and issued with court attendance notices.
If the purpose of the police operation was to make Splendour a “drug-free” event, it failed miserably. Drugs were readily available to anyone who wanted them and once you were past the sniffer dogs, people weren’t shy about getting high. The heavy-handed police presence had virtually no impact on drug consumption at the festival, and if anything this kind of punitive, law and order approach makes festivals like Splendour less safe, by encouraging riskier drug-taking behaviour.
Almost zero police presence when things went bad at the end last night, but no shortage of sniffer dogs smh https://t.co/tKvYuetOYn
— Urthboy (@urthboy) July 23, 2016
Our drug laws and the way they are enforced are rife with hypocrisy. They don’t keep people safe, they don’t reflect the reality of how and why people take drugs and they ignore the best evidence we have on how to deal with drug consumption.
Trying To Stop People At Music Festivals Taking Drugs Is Dumb
If the cops think that their anti-drug operations are having any impact whatsoever on drug consumption at Splendour they are living on another planet.
Despite the intense police presence, the prevalence of sniffer dogs at all entrances and intrusive car searches, drugs were everywhere. The campsite and the festival grounds constantly smelt like dope and when artists like Hermitude implored fans to “Light it up” the crowd responded accordingly. If you hadn’t managed to smuggle in your own pills they were easy enough to find, with an ad hoc barter economy springing up that saw alcohol traded for MDMA at incredibly bad exchange rates.
Wanna get high before losing it in the Tipi Forest? All you had to do was meet a shady character at toilet block 3B and trade half a litre of smuggled vodka for a few pills. The police might be bragging about their “successful” operation, but other than driving up the price of MDMA and forcing punters to acquire it from weird looking dudes from the Central Coast hiding out in the toilet it’s hard to see what tangible impact it had.
90% of tinder groups at Splendour are people looking for drugs — William Dariol (@WilliamDariol) July 24, 2016
People have always taken drugs at music festivals and they always will. Pretending that you can stamp it out by spending millions on riot police and drug dogs is a fantasy. It’s time the police and lawmakers accepted reality and updated our legal framework to reflect how prevalent drug use is in our society.
There Is A Better Way To Keep Things Safer
Earlier in the year Dr Alex Wodak, the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, called for pill testing to be rolled out at music festivals across Australia, including Splendour. “What we want to do is reduce death, reduce severe illness and we want to do that as cost-effectively as possible,” Dr Wodak said.
Pill testing kits like those advocated by Dr Wodak allow drug consumers to test what is actually inside their pills before they take them. They’re backed by experts as an important harm minimisation measure. Unfortunately for Dr Wodak, and everyone who attended Splendour, NSW Premier Mike Baird shot down the proposal, labelling it “ridiculous”. No pill testing was on offer at the festival.
The end result? A giant three-day event where thousands took drugs but no harm minimisation programs or services were on offer. Considering the amount of young, likely first-time drug users there would have been at Splendour, it’s incredible that the government and police are persisting with an approach to drug laws that sees kids buying potentially dodgy pills from strangers and taking them without knowing for sure what’s in them and what they should do if things go wrong.
The government can say “people just shouldn’t take them” as much as they like, but it’s not working. In fact, the alternative has already proved successful elsewhere. The Secret Garden Party music and arts festival in the UK offered pill testing for the first time this year and hundreds of people used the police-sanctioned service to test their drugs. Pill testing is also regularly available at festivals in the Netherlands and in Germany.
— Beckley Foundation (@BeckleyResearch) July 26, 2016
While the rest of the world is re-evaluating their approach to drug laws, Australia is doubling down and investing more into police resources than measures to improve safety like pill testing.
We Have To Stop Ruining The Lives Of Young People For Minor Drug Possession
A young kid fresh out of high school, excited about starting their degree in teaching, decides to head to Splendour before classes kick off to enjoy one last weekend of freedom, sunshine and fun before buckling down. They stop off in Byron Bay on the way to festival and pick up a couple of pills, hoping to take their enjoyment of Sticky Fingers to the next level. The mate they’re driving in with has brought a joint with them, because why not.
On the way in to the festival they get stopped by the cops and a sniffer dog detects something. They don’t know what rights they have to resist being searched, and the police aren’t being particularly obliging, so they own up and hand over the joint and pills. The cops say that if all they had was a joint they probably would have gotten off with a caution but since they’re in possession of MDMA they’re going to be charged and will have to attend court. The cops tell them they’re lucky they only had two pills. If they had three or more they could’ve been charged with supply and faced a two-year jail term.
Chances are our would-be festival goer will end up with a conviction recorded against their name, a black mark that will follow them for the rest of the lives. All for being caught with the same drugs plenty of other punters snuck into the festival. Does arresting, charging and convicting someone of drug possession dissuade drug use, or make people safer? The experts say no, but we keep doing it and ruin the futures of thousands of young people anyway.
Why Is It Legal To Get Wasted But Not High?
At Splendour the cops spent a lot of time and money working hard to ensure people weren’t smoking dope or taking pills. But at the same festival it was on for young and old to get completely trashed on over-priced, terrible beer. There’s no logic in a system that allows the consumption of what is basically a deadly poison that turns people into belligerent dickheads but outlaws the consumption of cannabis.
15 people die every day in Australia as a result of alcohol consumption. Even Barack Obama recognised that cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol, yet we invest millions in stopping people consuming cannabis at a music festival and stand by while watching them get smashed for five days straight. It doesn’t make any sense.
Will Tregoning, the Executive Director of Unharm, a not-for-profit organisation campaigning for safe and ethical drug use, told Junkee that “Splendour was without a doubt a missed opportunity” when it comes to a harm minimisation approach instead of punitive, police operations.
“There should have been a drug testing service. Pill testing is no silver bullet, there are no such things as silver bullets. We need a holistic approach to safety but right now we’ve got the opposite, especially from police who promote fear,” Tregoning said.
— David Caldicott (@ACTINOSProject) July 23, 2016
According to Tregoning, high visibility police operations are counter-productive as they can encourage risky behaviour from drug users. Experts like Dr. Alex Wodak have argued that “The presence of drug dogs at festivals and parties creates an incentive for attendees to take all their drugs at once prior to entering.” Tregoning also thinks that exultant media releases from the police do nothing other than give people with no experience of the drug scene a false sense of comfort when it comes to community safety.
“The people that message is for are those who have no connection to the scene,” he said. “The people who have that connection know that illicit drug goes on, likely in more risky ways.”
Splendour is a great festival with awesome music and fun vibes. But the head in the sand approach taken by politicians and the police on the reality of drug use isn’t making the festival any safer, it’s making it more dangerous. Our hypocritical drug laws are hurting young people, threatening to ruin their lives and doing nothing to improve community safety.
Police and law-makers are never going to stop young people smoking a joint or taking MDMA at a music festival. They can’t even explain why those drugs are illegal while consumption of alcohol, a drug that kills thousands every year, is incredibly prevalent. Instead of pretending they can change the way young people live their lives they need to ditch the war on drugs and embrace the reality of harm minimisation like the rest of the world.
Images: Jack Toohey