At around 9.30 am on Monday 9 December, word went around punters camped out at the Wild Horses festival in Victoria’s Marysville that an announcement had been made regarding an alleged police order that the site be immediately evacuated due to the potential for a bushfire.
Unsurprisingly, attendees began gathering their goods, climbing into their cars and departing, just as they’d been told to do. However, on the way out of the festival site, punters escaping the so-called emergency situation were pulled over one-by-one to be breathalysed and drug tested by police.
Mordd IndyMedia outlined that it had been contacted by a representative of the event organisers, who alleged that the evacuation message must have been a fake. The report further said, “Why the police have chosen to apparently manufacture an emergency only hours before the official departure time is pure speculation at this point.”
ABC’s Hack was told by the Victorian Country Fire Association, as well as the State Control Centre, that they were unaware of any specific incidents that warranted an evacuation in the area. While a Victoria police spokesperson denied that the evacuation order had been given.
However, one thing is for sure, festivalgoers who were evacuating an area under the impression that there was a bushfire threat – which is a fairly reasonable idea these days – weren’t allowed to flee the area, but were bottlenecked into one lane by police and then every driver was tested.
Charged on evacuation
“Myself and my partner have both been through bushfires before, so, as you can imagine, we were like, ‘It’s time to go,’” recalled a Wild Horses punter. She added that others have since related that they spoke to the fire brigade, which said it hadn’t issued any local warnings.
“Everybody knew the police were going to be there. They’d been up there the whole time,” the festivalgoer – who prefers to remain anonymous – told Sydney Criminal lawyers. “So, it’s not like we were trying to be sneaky or anything. We were told to evacuate immediately, so that’s what we did.”
The long-time bush doof patron explained that she’d tested positive for alcohol, but only for being a tad over the limit. So, if she hadn’t been told to evacuate, she’d have been fine to drive by the time 12 pm came around, which was when organisers had confirmed they were permitted to stay until.
I’m rather “cranky” about the “injustice”, the woman emphasised. She, along with a number of others who were charged with drink driving, are going to contest their charges on the grounds that if they hadn’t of been evacuated so early, they would have been under the legal limit by midday.
“They tested everyone. They did not let anyone pass,” she continued. “I just know, having been through a fire, that if the police order an immediate evacuation due to a serious bushfire risk” you comply.
Upending standard procedures
Enpsychedelia posted at around 1 pm that they’d heard reports that the festival had been evacuated “on police direction”. However, the harm reduction and drug law reform radio program noted that the Bureau of Meteorology had no warnings posted for that particular region.
Co-host of the Radio 3CR program Nick Wallis confirmed that they’d received “fairly clear information from someone that was working there” outlining that it was Victoria police that directed the emergency evacuation.
“We’ve had pretty consistent reports from a number of people. On the show, we had somebody give a pretty similar account to those that we’ve read,” Wallis said. They’ve all stated “that Victoria police asked the owners of the venue to issue an emergency warning saying there was a fire in the area”.
The well-known drug law reformer explained that it was an outrage that an emergency provider, like Victoria police, would just “upend” procedures to suit them, when over the last five years there’s been a concerted statewide emphasis on improving festival safety, and not just around drugs.
“People left and were run straight through roadside drug operations, which bottlenecked the only road out of that site,” Wallis stressed. And he added that of late there’s been a lot more funding being funnelled into highly-derided roadside drug testing operations.
Not testing for impairment
The Victorian roadside drug testing regime was introduced in 2004. Unlike breathalysing for alcohol, roadside drug testing in Victoria – as in NSW – involves police taking a saliva sample and testing it for any trace of certain illegal drugs. So, it gives no indication if a person is intoxicated at the time.
The Road Safety Act 1986 (VIC) provides that a person is guilty of drug driving if they have “any concentration” of three prescribed drugs in their system. These being cannabis, amphetamines and MDMA. This is similar in NSW, except police have now added cocaine into the mix.
Detractors of this roadside drug testing model claim that it does little to improve road safety, whilst at the same time, is a backdoor means of punishing people for using illicit substances, without any definite indication that they were recently consumed.
NSW magistrate David Heilpern has made a number of landmark rulings, where he’s found those charged with drug driving not guilty. In one case, there was no proof a man had smoked cannabis for nine days, while in another, a woman tested positive due to passive smoking.
One out of four ain’t good
The Victoria police operations at the Wild Horses festival had already made headlines prior to the evacuation scare. It was reported that officers had searched a total of 340 cars over the weekend and had found illicit drugs in a quarter of them.
While there are conflicting stories about who called the evacuation, or whether there was even an evacuation call made, Mr Wallis said there was no excuse for the massive crackdown that took place as festivalgoers attempted to evacuate the site.
And while NSW police operations at festivals have been heavily criticised over recent years, Wallis explained that the same kind of policing operations that are happening at NSW festivals are also occurring at events in Victoria – minus the emphasis on strip searches.
“I’m not even comfortable going to these events anymore,” the radio presenter concluded. “Most events that you go to now, you’re running a risk of just being there being used as a reasonable suspicion to search your vehicle and to run sniffer dogs through it.”
“And even if you’ve never taken drugs in your whole life, you still feel guilty from that experience.”
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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.