Police must act responsibly and reduce risks of harm

74 people were found in possession of illicit drugs during a police operation at the Dragon Dreaming Music Festival at Wee Jasper over the weekend. 18 police and two drug detection dogs conducted the ‘high visibility’ operation over the four days of the music festival.

Dragon_Dreaming_1.jpgThe police press release about the operation has been published, almost word for word, as a news story in the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, ABC news, the Brisbane Times and a number of other online news outlets.

Inspector Evan Quarmby from The Hume Local Area Command said for the size of the crowd it was disappointing to see so many people caught with prohibited drugs. In response, Unharm director Will Tregoning commented that ‘If police were disappointed to find drugs, it’s not clear why they were there. The 74 people charged with drug offences represented only 3% of the estimated 2,500 people who attended the festival. In comparison, about one million people in NSW consume illicit drugs each year, representing about 14% of the population.’

Festival organiser Shane Russell noted that "the only significant security incident we had was due to some drunk fishermen arriving by boat and causing trouble. We had no drug related medical incidents during the festival."

Only two people were charged with drug supply offences, or 0.08% of attendees. In 2006 the NSW Ombudsman slammed the drug detection program, finding that 99.8% of searches did not result in a successful supply prosecution. The Ombudsman reported that “Overwhelmingly, the use of drug detection dogs has led to public searches of individuals in which no drugs were found, or to the detection of (mostly young) adults in possession of very small amounts of cannabis for personal use.”

Comments critical of the operation flooded the NSW Police media release on Facebook yesterday. One comment argued that ‘The Police are half the problem at these festivals. If they truly cared about the safety of people consuming recreational drugs at the festivals they would open their eyes to better practices that are in place in other countries. In Australia though we prefer to just put our head in the sand, pretend it hardly happens and watch kids OD and die...’

In 2013 the drug detection dog operation at the Defqon1 music festival at Penrith was implicated in the overdose death of a 23 year old man. The use of dogs also incentivizes attendees to ‘preload’ – consuming all their drugs before attending the festival – or switch from less harmful but more detectable drugs like cannabis to less detectable but more harmful ones like GHB.

Unharm director Will Tregoning called on NSW Police to consider the harms of these operations and start acting responsibly. “NSW Police need to consider the harms of drug detection dog operations at music festivals. Some attendees at the Dragon Dreaming chose to use illicit drugs but there were no medical emergencies at this event. Using drugs is illegal and risky but attendees clearly took responsibility for managing the risks. Police must also start acting responsibly and abandon programs that do not work.”

Reading the stories regurgitating the police press release news story, you wouldn’t have any sense of what this festival was actually like. I was there among the 2500 people who attended over the four days, with 18 police conducting the drug detection operation outside the festival and 2-4 police who patrolled the event each day and night

The Dragon Dreaming Festival, now in its sixth year, is a highly organised, safety-focused event with no history of violence or anti-social behaviour. There are medical professionals on site throughout the event, 24-hour safe spaces for people to contact organisers, rest or find out information and specific camping grounds and entertainment for families and children. Considerable effort is expended by organisers, volunteers and participants to ensure that this is a safe and inclusive, community oriented event.

Festival organisers and attendees have been dismayed by the inaccurate portrayal of the event in the media this week.

A festival attendee commented that “I've never seen such a major event be simultaneously so open, community oriented and family friendly. There was no threat of being exposed to alcohol-induced fist-fights, unprovoked racial attacks and sexual assaults. It’s insulting that this magnificent event has been depicted as a haven of anti-social behaviour. I've seen more alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour at Canberra’s Civic Bus Station at 11pm on a single Friday night than I saw over an entire weekend in Wee Jasper!”

The Wee Jaspar community was also supportive of the festival. Locals ran a food stall at the event with most residents in the area covering at least one shift over the course of the festival. This event raised approximately $10,000 for the local school.

So why are police committing significant resources and effort to conduct “high-visibility” operations at an event with no history of anti-social behaviour, no overdoses, and with ample medical and volunteer services? "Was it a good use of police resources to have 18 officers out of action for the weekend, conducting a drug detection operation outside this festival?"

Drug detection operations such as this have nothing to do with improving the safety of attendees at events. Instead these actions are a hangover of failed War on Drugs policies that have been comprehensively shown to be ineffective. These actions unnecessarily increase the load on the court and justice systems and criminalise good citizens for no public benefit.

Rather than being hotbeds of anti-social activity, researchers from the University of Denver, University of California and Columbia University and from Stanford University have found that participation in festivals such as this leads to improved psychological functioning, in particular the adoption of more adaptive emotion regulation strategies in face of stressful life events.

It’s time for an evidence based approach to harm reduction rather than the expensive, ineffective demonisation of festival communities.

Photo credit - David Burke

[Edited 2/11/14 to clarify the location of police during the festival.]

Showing 5 reactions

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  • Will Tregoning
    I’m no lawyer but this is ringing alarm bells for me. Roadblocks can only be established if there is a threat to public safety (e.g., a landslide) or if a particular vehicle or class of vehicle is reasonably suspected of ‘being, or was, or may have been, used in or in connection with the commission of an indictable offence’. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/leara2002451/s37.html

    To give a couple of examples, the indictable quantity of MDMA is 5grams or 25 doses, and the indictable quantity of cannbis ‘leaf’ is 1kg. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/dmata1985256/sch1.html It’s hard to see how every car entering a festival could be reasonably suspected to be carrying an indictable quantity of drugs.

    Once a car is stopped at a roadblock, as far as I understand, a drug search can only be conducted in one of three situations – an officer reasonably suspects that the car contains illicit drugs, or the owner gives consent (though this may only be valid if there is also reasonable grounds for the search), or there is a warrant to search that particular car.

    Dogs can only be used for general drug detection in public places and while a road is a public place, the interior of a car is not. Therefore as I understand it a drug detection dog inside a car is conducting a search.
  • Will Tregoning
    Thanks for the comment Phil. It made me wonder though – what would it mean to strike a balance between a perception that is false and reality? Shouldn’t we be aiming to change the false perception in order to make it possible to better manage the harms?
  • Phil Crothers
    This is an excellent article and certainly presents a good case against the heavy handed approach from the NSW police force during Dragon Dreaming. I find it unfortunate that absence of anti-social behaviour doesn’t register on the radar for police response, however I feel this is the angle best utilised to curb the heavy handed approach.

    In negotiations with police, it will be interesting to work out how to achieve a balance between the perception of harm minimisation through narcotic detection and the reality that increased measures to detect narcotics actually increase harm and anti-social behaviour by way of an unhealthy increase in levels of alcohol consumption. It is a wicked paradigm, though with all frameworks, it can be recognised and augmented for a balanced outcome.

    How to strike that balance is something that I would like to find out more about and would appreciate comments or suggestions.
  • Vince Polito
    Thanks for clarifying the number of police inside and outside the festival. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression. We will update the article ASAP.
  • Michael Shannon
    I think it’s important to correct an aspect of this article – the 18 police and drug detection dogs ran their operation via a road block in the nearby town of Wee Jasper – not within the festival grounds. 2 police were present on site during the day, and 4 at night as part of a User Pays service, which was a mandatory requirement (requested by police) of development application approval for the event.