Record Drug Busts at Music Festival – Is This How We Measure Success?

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Festival patrons

If ever there was a point in recent Australian history at which we could say the vast majority of people have had every opportunity to become well informed about the potential health dangers and personal consequences of taking illegal drugs, it would arguably be now.

Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of music festival news reporting, sadly, mostly for all the wrong reasons. In particular, over the past several weeks, national headlines have been dominated by the tragic stories of six young people: Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King whose deaths – as a result of taking drugs – have been the subject of a New South Wales coronial inquiry.

Tough penalties, as well as a strong police presence and heavy-handed law enforcement tactics at festivals to detect drugs through sniffer dog operations and strip searches have also been widely publicised and hotly debated.

Record drugs seized at Splendour

So, if, against this backdrop, we were to pause for a moment and measure the Government’s current drug policy, Splendour in the Grass – one of the country’s most well-known and popular music festivals, attended by about 42,000 people, could well provide a reasonable indication of how successfully the Government’s repeated ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘don’t take drugs’ messages are actually getting through to, and influencing, our young people.

At Splendour in the Grass, held last weekend near Byron Bay in New South Wales, a ‘record amount’ of prohibited drugs were seized by police inside the festival itself, and more than 200 people were arrested.

One man was arrested after 220 MDMA tablets, cocaine and cannabis were found inside a vehicle at the festival site’s campgrounds. He was charged with supply of a prohibited drug greater than indictable quantity, as well as possession of a prohibited drug.

Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame, who has been at the head of the recent inquest into music festival deaths was also one of the attendees at Splendour. She was there overseeing a pill-testing ‘demonstration’ by Dr David Caldicott, who did not have full permission to conduct a proper trial at the event. Jen Ross-King, the mother of Alex Ross-King, was there too. She broke down as she looked over the demonstration and spoke to Dr Caldicott. Her

daughter Alex, was only 19, when she died from a drug overdose after ‘loading up’ to avoid police detection at the FOMO festival in Sydney in January.

Jen Ross-King is now urging the State Government to reconsider its non-committal stance on pill-testing which she believes may have saved her daughter’s life.

The significant taxpayer cost of ‘zero tolerance’

Despite a strong visible police presence at the festival which involved officers from Tweed/Byron Police District, as well as the NSW Police Dog Unit, Mounted Unit, Operations Support Group, Public Order and Riot Squad and Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, more than 350 drug detections were recorded with more than 2.8kg of illicit drugs seized, predominantly MDMA tablets and cannabis.

Police have since said they were pleased with the event overall, despite seizing record amounts of illegal substances.

“It’s disappointing that despite the warnings, we continue to detect the possession and supply of these illicit substances. Not only is it a serious criminal offence, it is also harmful to your health; it can impact not only your life, but the lives of those around you,” said Tweed/Byron Police District Commander, Superintendent Dave Roptell.

Zero tolerance has not resulted in a reduction in drug use

Disappointing, perhaps. But the figures certainly attest to the fact that the government’s increasingly tough (and increasingly expensive to maintain) ‘zero tolerance’ stance has still not yet resulted in a reduction in drugs being taken to music festivals, or indeed used generally.

As the numbers from Splendour suggest, despite the stern warnings, heavy police presence and death toll, young people continue to choose to defy the laws to satisfy their curiosity and experiment with drugs. Young people tend to believe they’re invincible. They take risks, and for the vast majority, those risks come with minimal repercussions, for others they have been deadly.

So, at what point do we stare the obvious in the face, and begin to look at alternative options? Such as pill testing, such as decriminalising marijuana, such as treating drug use and addiction as a health issue rather than a crime – each of which have been tried and tested overseas with positive and lasting effect.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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