Sniffer dogs, no amnesty, dob in a drug dealer, the “dance of death.” Recreational drug use is, by most accounts, a factor in many young people’s lives. Discussion has progressed, intellectual heavyweights have entered the conversation. But the policing of weed, pills and powder and government’s position on illegal substances is as hardline as ever.
With two deaths at the Defqon.1 festival in western Sydney over the weekend — making it four fatalities in five years for this particular event — the debate on drugs has erupted once more. NSW Premier and state Liberal Party leader Gladys Berejiklian has pledged to ban the fest, and hosed-down the movement for pill testing.
Many others say it’s time to change tac, for a new policy. And that destroying a music festival doesn’t tackle the issue, it’ll only drive drugs back underground.
TIO reached out to music professionals and politicians and rounded up some of the finest thinking on the issue.
Jesse Desenberg, DJ and producer (aka Kid Kenobi)
In 1995 I wrote an essay while at university (which got published as a course reading) titled ‘Ecstasy and the Status Quo’. It was largely a response to the death of Anna Woods and an advocation of pill testing at raves and dance parties.
It’s sad to see that 23 years later we are still grappling with the same issues and more kids are dying because we continue to take a moral stand against drugs and not deal with the social reality of drug use amongst young people.
Jane Slingo, executive producer, Electronic Music Conference
It’s very clear that the approach to the issue of drug use at festivals is not working. If a zero tolerance approach was working, we would have seen a reduction in drug use and a reduction in the number of overdoses at our festivals.
Drug use is a health issue, and it must be approached as such. We only need to look at the outcomes from other countries which approach drug use as a health issue rather than a legal issue to see how this is proven to save lives. Or indeed, we just need to look in our own backyard at the impact the safe injecting rooms has had on saving lives in NSW.
The Premier’s suggestion that banning a music festival will address this issue is preposterous. One could argue that a stinking hot day combined with 30,000 people attending a festival and a 180 strong police presence with sniffer dogs led to a number of people taking the risk and dosing up in unsafe quantities — and this is a recipe for disaster.
How many more lives have to be lost before the NSW Government and the NSW Police acknowledge that the current approach is not working?
Jason Ayoubi, former CEO, director and founder of Future Entertainment and former president of Dance Music Association
Not taking away from personal responsibility and the fact that controlled and well organised events are a safer place to party than any backyard or private gathering anywhere in the country.
There needs to be a uniform national strategy to deal with drug use at events — it’s not just at dance events, it’s rife everywhere. Hard NRG-style events are notoriously more high-risk but having police not just acting as a deterrent for dealers at the front gate, as in Victoria and Queensland, but taking dogs through events is making inexperienced users panic and pre-load and overdose. What’s happening in NSW at the moment is probably having unintended consequences.
Safe events need a harm minimization strategy. There needs to be open constructive communication between all stakeholders. This happened in the early 2000s in Victoria and a code of practice was developed for the running of safe events. Promoters, police, medical and government all came together and got great results.
Joel Edmondson, Chair, Australian Music Industry Network (via an open letter)
Six questions for the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, related to the apparent drug-related deaths at Defqon.1: 1. How was the festival responsible for those patrons making the personal decision to take drugs? 2. How will shutting down the festival stop the same audience from taking drugs elsewhere? 3. What is the evidence demonstrating that an anti-pill testing stance reduces drug use in the community? 4. What is the evidence demonstrating that permitting pill testing increases drug use? 5. How many lives can you prove you have saved with your anti-pill testing stance? 6. If pill testing had been available at Defqon.1, is it more or less likely that the two deaths would have occurred? 7. What’s more important – looking tough on drugs despite the inevitability of people taking them, or saving lives?
Given you are a self-proclaimed person of faith, I encourage you to look deeply into your heart for honest answers to these questions, and answer them as honestly as you would answer them to your God.
We’ve got a clear approach on this area. Obviously, we can’t have situations like what we’ve seen on the weekend. And we need to be clear that we have proper coordinated clinical trials to look at the evidence, to see if pill testing does have a role to play. So an innovative approach, under controlled circumstances, and look at the evidence and look at the outcomes, then make an informed decision.
We can’t continue to just use a law enforcement solution after what’s happened on two episodes over the weekend. We have a serious problem, it is out of control, and we need to have a look at a raft of solutions in terms of dealing with these issues…
Shutting down the festival, obviously, will reduce the incidents like the weekend, but there’ll be other opportunities, other venues, other occasions where pills of dubious origin will be taken by young and unsuspecting drug users. We need to have better education; we need to inform them of the harms.
The actual episode of testing the pill is not just saying: “Oh, that’s an okay drug. You can take that.” It’s about an opportunity to try and inform the person, or persons involved, about the dangerous consequences and try to get an opportunity to give them education and access to rehabilitation in terms of trying to reduce their drug dependency.
Who, in the real world, thinks that shutting down music festivals is going to help win that war? Who wants sniffer dogs to be a feature of life in NSW? Who can offer an example of that kind of heavy-handed prohibition on drugs working, anytime, anywhere, in the Western world?
As to not having pill-testing because it sends the wrong message, we have already had this argument on the subject of safe injecting rooms for heroin users in the 1990s in Kings Cross.
The dinosaurs lost. The progressives won.
And now who, seriously, wants to go back to deaths in the street?
For more on the issue, visit Unharm and the Noffs foundation.
Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.