The death of a young man from a suspected drug overdose at a dance music festival in Sydney on September 14 showed not just how inadequate prohibition is at dealing with drugs, but how it also unnecessarily risks lives.
Defqon.1 is an annual music festival featuring hardstyle electronic dance music. It takes place in the Netherlands and Australia at different times each year. Each festival has its own anthem or theme song; the anthem for this year's Australian festival was “Scrap the System”.
The festival, which attracted more than 18,000 participants, was marred by the death of 23-year-old Victorian man James Munro and 20 other non-fatal overdoses at medical tents.
Eighty-three people were arrested for drug related offences in a police operation that included about 100 police using sniffer dogs, which searched hundreds of people.
Such a tragic death should have prompted a frank and open discussion about the nature of drug use in society and how it might have been. Instead, all that occurred in the media was the depressingly familiar, simplistic and moralistic refrain from police and politicians that: “Drugs are bad, mmmkay?”
Police blamed a “bad batch of ecstasy”. Detective Inspector Grant Healey told media: “The problem with pills is you never know what you are getting and you are really taking a lottery with your life.”
Plenty of people were quick to point the blame at drugs or users. But there is ample evidence that fighting the so-called war on drugs could have contributed to the overdoses and the risk-taking behaviour of users.
Festival attendee Luke Ussia told the Daily Telegraph that security moved through the medical tents “every 10 or 20 minutes”. This blurring of the lines between medical aid and law enforcement is dangerous because people may be more reluctant to seek help if something goes wrong.
The Sydney Morning Herald said that a manager of one of the artists at the festival had witnessed people “downing” drugs at the start to try to avoid arrest. Several patrons suggested the high price of drinks inside the festival was a possible reason for drug use at Defqon.1.
It is impossible to know whether the overdoses were a direct result of the police operation. However, the events leading to Munro’s death indicate that it could have been a factor in his case. Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, head of the NSW Drug Squad, told media: “He [Munro] actually told hospital staff that he had taken three pills.”
Media reports seem to indicate he took the drugs when gates opened at 11am. He was rushed to the medical tent just before midday. After suffering from several seizures he was taken to Nepean hospital, where he suffered cardiac arrest and could not be resuscitated. He was pronounced dead at about 10:30pm.
Whether the police operation at the festival was directly responsible for Munro's decision to take three pills at once, Bingham was unrepentant.
“You can't blame the police for going out and policing a venue ... if they're [festival goers] willing to, as you say, stuff these pills down their throat before they even go into the venue, that's hardly the police's fault.”
Defqon.1 is billed as a drug-free festival and the police presence is advertised on the tickets. But this did not stop an estimated several thousand people from taking drugs there. Healy, of Penrith police, said: “People are quite inventive on how they defeat police and security methods so it doesn’t really matter what we do.”
But police continue to use an approach that, even by its own admission, does not work and actually puts lives in danger.
Drug use in general should be addressed as a health issue, with harm minimisation the central concern, rather than a law enforcement issue.
To be clear, there is no such thing as harm-free drug-taking. There are risks involved. But taking prescription drugs for medical issues also carries some form of risk. So does skydiving, swimming, riding a bike or even attending a music festival — drugs or no drugs. But the risks are usually outweighed by other benefits of the activity. The best way to minimise those risks is by being educated and aware of them, factoring them into decision-making, and knowing what to do if something goes wrong.
For illegal drugs, the risks are worsened by the role of the black market. The fact that “drugs are dangerous because you can never know what you’re getting” — as police love to say — is the result of allowing criminal enterprises to take responsibility for the highly profitable venture of supplying the market. The potential to buy a drug that is poorly manufactured or even a different drug altogether is much higher.
There are alternatives to the “war on drugs” approach. The Netherlands, where the Defqon.1 festival also takes place, has a policy based on harm minimisation principals. This differentiates between hard and soft drugs (based on the negative impact to the individual and society), and focuses on decriminalisation of the softer drugs.
Portugal is another country that has adopted a policy of decriminalisation for drugs, introduced in 2001. Since then, there has been a reduction in usage and social problems caused by and associated with drug use.
In Latin America, Uruguay could become the first country in the world to legalise marijuana to try to minimise the negative impact the war on drugs is having there.
In Australia, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, who has firsthand knowledge of drugs, users and the criminal justice system, favours legalisation and state regulation of drugs, saying that: “The state supply of drugs seems to me to be the only logical procedure that can address the problem [of criminals profiting from the drugs trade].”
There is always the potential for abuse of drugs by some. But the same goes for prescription drugs or alcohol, which are legal and can be just as toxic and lethal. Drug prohibition is arbitrary and rarely has to do with the level of risk or harm of the substance.
Tobacco is a toxic but legal and regulated recreational drug subject to health campaigns about the negative impacts of use, which are leading to a decline in usage. The same cannot be said for illicit drugs. Despite the increased education and awareness around tobacco there are still those who continue to smoke. So it goes for illicit drugs too.
Instead of sinking resources into an unwinnable war on drugs, a different system could be implemented. A system in which a safe, regulated supply is combined with health and social programs to educate users and address the underlying causes that lead to drug use would reduce the health and social impacts caused by drugs.
Carrying on a failed policy, which treats users as criminals and the risks related to the illegality of drugs as endemic to the problem rather than a symptom of the way it is trying to be policed, is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst. Clearly this system needs to be scrapped.