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New South Wales state coroner to recommend overhaul of drug polices at music festivals

By | Published on Tuesday 15 October 2019


A report by the state coroner of New South Wales in Australia looking at drug-taking at music festivals could prove politically explosive, with Harriet Grahame likely to conclude that many efforts to combat drugs at largescale events actually put festival-goers at risk.

Grahame has been investigating anti-drug tactics employed by police at largescale events after examining the drug-related deaths of six young people at Australian music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019. Her final report will be submitted next month, but Australian newspaper the Daily Telegraph has seen a draft recently sent to health ministers and police chiefs in the state.

In it the coroner says that having a heavy police presence and sniffer dogs at festivals can actually put young people at risk, as it makes them more likely to consume any drugs in their possession in higher quantities, in order to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the report supports the proposal of having pill testing facilities on site at festivals, so that people intending to take drugs know what substances – and at what strength- they have actually acquired.

These proposals echo those of drug safety campaigners in the UK and elsewhere, who argue that it’s unrealistic to pretend that all drug taking at clubs and music festivals can be stopped, and instead of investing in measures that criminalise those in possession of illegal substances, resources should instead be invested in harm prevention projects that enable safer drug taking.

According to the Telegraph, in her report Grahame writes about her experience attending two music festivals to see the state’s anti-drug policies in action. “There were lines and lines of police and dogs. I was surprised at how intense it was”, she writes. “It made me feel nervous”.

The report later recommends that, “given the evidence of a link between the use of drug dogs and more harmful means of consumption (including double dosing, pre-loading, swallowing drugs and insertion in a vaginal or anal cavity), the model of policing music festivals be changed to remove drug detection dogs”.

Other recommendations include “decriminalising personal use of drugs as a mechanism to reduce the harm caused by drug use”, and “the introduction of a best practice model for pill testing/drug checking”.

It’s thought that at least some politicians and police chiefs will strongly oppose Grahame’s recommendations, reckoning that they will result in an increase in drug-taking at music events overall.

The Telegraph quotes one unnamed police officer as saying Grahame’s report basically proposes condoning a drugs “free for all” at music festivals, while a forensic psychiatrist is referenced arguing that the provision of pill-testing services simply “normalises” the consumption of illegal substances.

However, there will be plenty of people in the festival community who will welcome Grahame’s findings, hoping that it might result in a shift in regulations and policing that could allow an increase in harm prevention programmes at major music events.

And with this debate ongoing here in the UK and elsewhere, promoters and campaigners beyond New South Wales will be interested in reading Grahame’s report, and assessing how the political community responds to it.