Magistrate Robyn Denes chastised a number of young professionals from privileged backgrounds that appeared before her in Burwood Local Court on drug charges last week. The magistrate warned that these women can’t hide behind their “social fortune for too long.”
As reported by news.com.au, the women, including a nurse, a recruiter and a bank loan provider, were amongst 65 people arrested on drug related charges at the festival A State of Trance, which was held at Sydney Olympic Park in mid-April.
Among those before the magistrate, was a 26-year-old woman from northern Sydney, who admitted to having hidden two MDMA caps internally in a condom, and another woman of the same age from north western Sydney, who told police she wasn’t sure what kind of drugs she was carrying.
Ms Denes said she was struck by the number of young people attending the festival, “who have every advantage,” including an “education, solid families and jobs.” She also criticised those before her on minor possession charges for taking illicit substances of unknown content.
After warning the women that they couldn’t continue to rely upon their wealthy circumstances to get them out of trouble, she dismissed both of their personal possession charges and placed them on good behaviour bonds.
Only poor people do drugs
But, at a time when many are calling for a move towards treating drug use as a health issue, and not a crime, what do the magistrate’s comments tell us about the attitudes of some of those carrying out the administration of law in this state’s courts?
According to veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak, “these days many young people attending youth music and dance events take psychoactive drugs, even if they don’t take drugs at other times.” And it’s well known that many are “well educated, have good jobs and are reasonably affluent.”
The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president made clear that festivalgoers are a very different population from other people who use drugs in the community, who can often be “mired in chronic complex problems, which include severe dependence on much heavier drugs.”
“The magistrate seems to have limited knowledge and understanding of the realities of drug taking at youth music events,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. He added that while “there are some health and law enforcement risks from taking drugs at music events, these risks are not high.”
Dr Wodak also pointed out that Magistrate Denes “also seems comfortable with the notion that it is acceptable for socioeconomic status to positively or negatively influence the sentence imposed.” He added that many would take exception to this practice.
Reducing the harms is key
And as the doctor explained, despite the magistrate’s surprise, these young women who appeared in court last week are hardly in the minority. Indeed, a 2016 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report found that per capita Australian adults are leading the world in MDMA consumption.
Magistrate Denes was quite right when she said these women were unaware of what the substances they were going to ingest contained. But, to simply rebuke them for taking such a risk is merely reverting to the Reagan-era “just say no” approach, which decades have shown doesn’t work.
Dr Wodak points to Australia’s first government-sanctioned pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra last month as a successful harm reduction approach that reduces the dangers that can arise for festivalgoers who contemplate taking drugs of unknown content.
Of the samples taken from 128 participants who accessed the service, half the drugs tested were shown to contain substances other than what people thought they were taking, while two pills contained a deadly substance.
And five individuals tossed their drugs into the amnesty bins provided.
“There is growing support in Australia for removing legal obstacles to pill testing,” Dr Wodak said. “Many retired and even some serving senior police are on record approving such a change.” Former Australian federal police commissioner Mick Palmer was outspoken in his support of the trial.
Detection by police is unlikely
Following the crackdown at A State of Trance, South West Metropolitan Region Enforcement Squad Commander Detective Inspector Gus Viera said he was amazed by how many punters still turned up with drugs despite there being “a high-visibility police operation,” which included drug dogs.
However, young people attending events report illicit substances being readily available, “where there is saturation policing,” Dr Wodak remarked. And most assume that the chance of being picked up by officers for carrying drugs is “relatively low.”
“The situation at these music events is much the same as when police try to detect possession or use of illicit drugs in the community,” the harm reduction advocate explained.
“It is surprising that Detective Inspector Gus Viera seems unaware of this.”
Dogs increase harms
The main tactic of NSW police in trying to detect illicit substances at music events is its highly flawed drug detection dog program. The 2006 NSW Ombudsman report on the program revealed that 74 percent of all searches following an indication by a dog resulted in no illicit drugs being found.
Although, one outcome NSW police use of sniffer dogs is highly successful in achieving is encouraging dangerous drug taking practices. It’s been shown that some festivalgoers panic on seeing a drug dog operation and take all their drugs at once, which can lead to overdose.
And as made clear in Magistrate Denes’ courtroom last week, it can also encourage participants to hide drugs in packaging inside body cavities, with the obvious danger that can result if a package bursts.
As Dr Wodak puts it, sniffer dogs can lead young people at events to swallow all the drugs in their possession to avoid a conviction, whereas those who participate in pill testing services make an informed decision and if their drugs prove high risk they throw them away.
The drug war has failed
So, are the actions of a few affluent young people who appeared in court last week for possessing drugs for personal use really that outlandish, when you consider that the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 12.9 percent of Australians adults have tried MDMA.
Or isn’t it time the real culprit was laid bare?
The century old system of drug prohibition, and the intensification of its law enforcement approach over the last fifty years, has resulted in the formation of huge criminal networks, led to mass incarceration and has increased the use of illegal drugs, which have become more dangerous.
The establishment of a legal and regulated drug market is the way to stop the dangers associated with illicit substance use, and it will also give judicial officers, like Magistrate Denes, some just laws to enforce while upholding the rule of law.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.