To save lives, we must rethink our approach to drugs

Drug use has been a part of festival culture from its inception.

This weekend our community experienced more heart-breaking loss — a 23-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman died after collapsing at the Defqon.1 music festival in Penrith on September 15. A further 13 festival patrons were hospitalised.

Defqon billed itself as a “zero tolerance” festival, meaning drug use was forbidden. Police with sniffer dogs were out in force and promoters advised patrons that anyone found with drugs would be handed over to police.

We all know that drug use has been a part of festival culture from its inception, and an evidence-based approach involving harm reduction and “looking out for your mates” is the best way to keep everyone safe.

The “brown acid” announcement at Woodstock in 1969 was an early example of harm reduction in action, where a festival organiser famously advised the crowd “the brown acid that is circulating is specifically not too good”.

This culture has continued and thrived in the festival scene in the nearly 50 years since.

Yet, with the 2018–19 festival season fast approaching, we are continuing to exacerbate the harms people attending festivals experience through zero tolerance and heavy policing.

Zero tolerance

The intention of zero tolerance is to reduce harm by reducing drug taking, an approach that may seem logical.

But the reality is that zero tolerance does not work and that people will continue to use drugs. Often people find them a fun, enjoyable way to relax and enjoy music.

Festivals have many young, often inexperienced, drug users. Patrons may have spent upwards of $1000 to be there, with most having invested at least $200 or so for their day out (not including what they spend on drugs).

To then tell those same patrons that they will be ejected for any drug use is a recipe for disaster.

Who in their right mind would identify themselves to the services available if they are worried they will get into trouble? Heavy policing and sniffer dogs all exacerbate these issues.

In response to the events at Defqon, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian initially vowed to shut down the festival (although she subsequently backed down from this threat).

Shutting down festivals will not work. Educated estimates put drug use at festivals at between 50–90% of all patrons.  

Australia has one of the highest rates of MDMA use in the world and one 2016 survey found that 29% of participants had overdosed on a stimulant, most frequently MDMA, in public places such as live music events and nightclubs.

Harm minimisation

The official approach to drug use in NSW and Australia is harm minimisation. This includes harm reduction, policing to reduce supply and treatment to reduce demand.

However, the unofficial approach is often one of harm maximisation, which relies on heavy policing and a simplistic approach of “just say no” to eliminate drug use. It is an approach that clearly is not working.

The number of lives lost and damaged by the criminalisation of personal drug use is staggering. More than 1800 Australians died from drug overdoses last year, a statistic that is thankfully getting some attention from government, but shockingly few resources given the huge toll.

Maybe it is too obvious to say that the war on drugs is really a war on people that use drugs, and that the trauma, loss and ruin are just as profound as in any other war.

Or that until it ends we need to focus on its terrible toll: the imprisonment; the death; blood borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C; the impact on Aboriginal people and people who are disadvantaged through poverty, poor education and health issues.

We need to mobilise and fight back.

Harm reduction

Our only weapon to counter this at the moment is harm reduction, which does work.

Harm reduction takes a non-judgemental approach to drug use, recognising that it will happen no matter what policy or law dictates, and seeks to reduce the risks inherent in an unregulated drug supply and the harms of criminalisation.

Some of the harm reduction interventions that have saved many thousands of lives during the past 30 years include the opioid treatment program (methadone); medically supervised injecting centres; and needle and syringe programs.

Peer-based harm reduction services allow credible people with lived experience of drug use to pass on non-judgemental information.

These services give young people a chance to openly discuss the risks and harms of drug use, as they know that they will not be judged, condemned or told “no”.

Harm reduction does not encourage drug use; rather it reduces potential injury and loss of life by providing factual information about risk.

There is a serious amount of time and energy being put into improving festival harm reduction right now.

Calls for pill testing at festivals are credible and support for this initiative is at about 70% in the general population.

We have a model that works thanks to the recent pill testing trial held in Canberra by Harm Reduction Australia. A new consortium, The Loop, is working hard to bring a model that has been running successfully in Britain to Australia.

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge has promoted pill testing and highlighted the harms of sniffer dogs at festivals.

The NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA) runs DanceWize NSW, based on the highly successful program that has been operating out of Harm Reduction Victoria for 20 years.

Serious conversation

Shutting down the multi-million-dollar festival industry is not a solution. And telling young people “no” simply will not work.

Building a coordinated, evidence-based approach is the best way to ensure everyone’s safety.

Moreover, these approaches are politically popular. A majority of people in NSW support pill testing and the safe injecting centre in Kings Cross.

They are rational and realistic policy initiatives aimed at keeping people safe.

We urgently need to rethink our approach before more young lives are needlessly lost.

All of these approaches are necessary and good. But they should only be a prelude to a serious conversation about ending the war on people who use drugs and ensuring regulation of supply.

There is no other way to keep safe the 40% of Australians who will use drugs at some point in their lives and the millions who use regularly.

[Mary Ellen Harrod is CEO of NUAA and a board member of Harm Reduction Australia.]