The police presence at music festivals leads some people to a “panic overdose” in order not to be caught, according to an Australian study in which experts call for a change in the police culture at festivals.
In the largest survey of its kind, researchers led by the University of NSW’s St. Vincent’s Clinical School surveyed visitors at six major music festivals in NSW between November 2019 and March 2020. The results were published on Friday in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.
Participants completed an anonymous survey about their intended drug use and riskier behaviors, such as: (known as “double-dropping”), higher risk alcohol use from consuming 11 or more standard beverages in addition to using illegal drugs and mixing stimulants.
They were also asked whether the presence of police and police dogs had an impact on their decision to use drugs.
Of the 1,229 respondents, 372 (or 30%) wanted to use drugs or said they had already used drugs that day. MDMA was the most commonly reported drug, with 77% of those who said they used drugs said they did or intended to use them that day. Other commonly used drugs were cocaine, cannabis, LSD / acid, and ketamine.
When it came to higher-risk behaviors, of the 286 people who used MDMA, 48% said they lost twice as much. The gender differences were significant, with men falling more than twice as likely as women. Eighty-two (22%) of participants who answered “yes” to using drugs also reported high-risk alcohol use.
The researchers found a significant association between fear of the police and drug summons. People who said the police presence affected their decision to use drugs were more than twice as likely to say they had been summoned.
“This study reinforces existing concerns about the unintended harmful effects of police surveillance of drug use at festivals,” the study said.
A study author and Senior Research Fellow at the University of NSW, Dr. Jonathan Brett said, “In Australia there is now a really growing body of evidence that the presence of police and police dogs and security strategies at festivals are actually potentially really harmful.”
In 2019, NSW’s assistant coroner found that high visibility police tactics like drug dogs and searching patrols at music festivals increased drug-related risks.
“I really hope we can have a conversation, not about removing the police entirely, but possibly a different approach to police strategies that are not just about criminalizing drug users. Everyone wants people to be safer and healthier, so we need to discuss how best to do this. “
No drug-related deaths were recorded at any of the six festivals, although several participants had to be hospitalized. Brett said the police presence, both through his study and previous studies, has determined that people are reluctant to seek medical help.
Researchers concluded that in addition to changing the approach to policing, there is a need for more targeted education to prevent risky behaviors such as mixing substances, as well as wider adoption of pill testing. None of the festivals included in the study had a pill-testing site.
A senior lecturer in addiction at Edith Cowan University, Dr. Stephen Bright said that not all police are created equal. He has conducted drug research at festivals in Western Australia, Victoria and NSW and said there are differences in police practices between states.
“In Western Australia, the culture seems to be much more about community policing, where they turn a blind eye to trivial drug use and essentially the main purpose for them is to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
“I feel like at a Western Australian festival, people tend not only to turn to the police, but also to other support services that are there because they are not afraid of getting into trouble. You know the police are there to help. You are not there to pursue them. “