In Australia, music festival-goers say they would prefer to try their luck self-managing a potentially life-threatening overdose than seek lifesaving help, fearing they’ll end up taken away in cuffs by police. And researchers say the findings only confirm what they’ve been demanding for years: a top-down rethink of drug policing strategies across the country.
According to the largest survey of drug-using young festival-goers undertaken in Australia, just under a third of the 1,229 people questioned over the course of a full summer festival season said that the fear of getting arrested by police was the biggest barrier between seeking help—either for themselves, or their friends—while at a major music festival.
The study follows in the footsteps of others like it around the world, which have drawn a nexus between aggressive policing strategies and the barriers they mount in the face of at-risk users of drugs looking for health support.
Similar findings in Canada and Portugal have each led to more progressive criminal exemptions for bystanders calling for the help of police in the event of an overdose. And it was only recently that a Coronial Inquest into Deaths at Festivals in New South Wales directly linked “prohibitionist” policing strategies to higher drug-related death rates at festivals. Those findings led to the 2019 introduction of on-the-spot fines for those caught with small amounts of drugs, as opposed to criminal prosecution.
But researchers still think there’s vast room for improvement, as police continue to intimidate people within an inch of their lives.
“Fear has been openly acknowledged as a feature, and not a bug, of policing young people in some jurisdictions across Australia,” Dr David Caldicott, an ED consultant and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the Australian National University, told VICE.
Young people across the eastern states know the tactic well. It was only three years ago that NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, stood by the use of controversial police power, after a 16-year-old girl was strip searched at a music festival in 2018. At the time, Fuller warned that crime would only increase if young people didn’t “fear” police.
In a text exchange from Italy, where Dr Caldicott was taking part in the nation’s National Disaster Exercise, he mentioned that his international harm reduction colleagues were “aghast” at some of the policing practices that have been allowed to continue in Australia, predominantly targeted at young people, at the obvious cost of lives.
It’s a sentiment well supported by the newly released study and shared by his colleagues.
For Peta Malins, a lecturer in criminology and justice studies at RMIT, the biggest takeaway for decision-makers across the country should be to begin treating drug use—whether illicit or not—as a health matter, not a criminal one, “and stop assuming we can somehow do both at the same time”.
“Criminalising, policing and punishing those who use drugs actively deters people from seeking health advice and support,” Malins told VICE.
“Portugal has shown the world a better way of decriminalising all drugs, by shifting money from policing into healthcare and education. It's time Australia, and the rest of the world, followed their lead.”
At the height of a crippling heroin epidemic in the 1990s, Portugal responded the same way governments in the UK, and the US, had done before it: introducing even harsher policies and punishments for those caught high, or with drugs on their person. As a result, the nation’s prison population became dominated by inmates who had been slapped with drug-related criminal prosecutions, and later suffered an addiction epidemic of their own.
But in 2001, Portugal took a leap of faith: it became the first country in the world to decriminalise the consumption of all drugs. Some two decades later, while the US is still fighting some iteration of “the War on Drugs” as opioid deaths surpass 100,000, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has plummeted to just a fraction of that seen across the EU.
Malins is convinced a similar play in Australia, focused on a top to bottom rethink of drug policing strategies across the country, would deliver similar results.
“If police are deployed at festivals, they need to stop focusing on catching and punishing people with drugs and instead direct their energy toward watching out for, and responding to, anyone in need of any sort of help,” Malins said.
“As my research on police use of sniffer dogs at festivals has shown, rather than deterring people from taking drugs, police crackdowns tend to encourage people to take their drugs in more dangerous ways to avoid detection. They also lead people to develop a strong distrust of police, and the view that police are not there to help them should they or their friends run into trouble.”
Malins doesn’t even think police are best placed to offer support at music festivals—her preference would be for other organisations, which specialise in health and harm reduction services, to step in where police have so far failed to. It isn’t an uncommon position.
Network of Alcohol and other Drugs Agencies chief executive, Robert Stirling, also thinks that responses to alcohol and other drugs in the community should warrant a health system response, not one from police. He said they should take stock of the study’s findings and invest in strategies that actively reduce stigma and marginalisation, while prioritising the voices of frontline workers, academics and people with lived experience.
“We need to ensure that people, especially young people, feel safe to be able to seek support to address alcohol and other drugs concerns and not fear judgement and criminal penalties.”
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