New study shows police presence at music festivals can lead to drug overdoses

drugs at festivals

A new survey — purported to be the largest of its kind —  suggests that a strong police presence at music festivals is a key factor in people ‘loading up’, that is taking all their drugs before entering festival gates, which can have serious consequences, potentially leading to illness and in some cases even death.

The study, which was led by St Vincent’s Clinical School at the University of NSW surveyed festival goers who had attended festivals in New South Wales between November 2019 and March 2020. Participants were asked about their drug use as well as higher-risk behaviours in relation to drugs and alcohol consumption.

Fear of police can stop people asking for medical help

The researchers also found a significant correlation between a fear of policing and preloading drugs, with participants saying that  police presence influenced their decision to preload. While no deaths were recorded at the festivals surveyed, several people did have to be taken to hospital.

Researchers also found the presence of police made people reluctant to seek medical help. Overall, the study concluded that along with different policing strategies, more targeted education is needed to prevent risky behaviours such as mixing substances.

The NSW South Wales Coronial Inquest into the drug-related deaths of six festival-goers between December 2017 and January 2019 made similar conclusions.

In her final report, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame, said that the young people who were at the centre of the inquiry, were “keen to have new experiences” and whose deaths were “completely unexpected and profoundly tragic.”

Her report recommended three important changes to policing at music festivals:

Stopping the use of sniffer dogs

Under the law, in order to conduct a lawful search of a person’s body, a police officer needs to be able to show that he/she formed a reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession of an illicit drug. A positive indication by a sniffer dog provides ground for police to conduct a strip search. When police are present at a festival, it is harder for them to establish reasonable grounds for a search when not using sniffer dogs.

But a report prepared by the New South Wales Ombudsman in 2018 found that almost every indication by a sniffer dog resulted in a member of the public being searched. However, approximately 75% of those searched were not found to be in possession of illicit drugs. This indicates that the accuracy of sniffer dogs in identifying people actually carrying drugs is only around 25%.

Stopping strip searches

There has been a lot of media attention on strip searches, and currently a class action is underway in relation to illegal strip searches undertaken at iconic Byron Bay festival  Splendour in the Grass 2016-2019.

Strip searches are highly invasive, and can have a traumatic effect on people. What’s more, in the majority of cases, strip searches turn up nothing illegal.

The implementation of pill testing

Pill testing is an exceptionally controversial subject, with many believing that it sanctions or condones drug use. However, the other side of the argument is that people are going to take drugs socially, irrespective of whether they are illegal.

Pill testing simply enables people to test the substances they are taking, to understand the ingredients of the drug, the potential risks, and whether or not the drugs are pure. Pill testing has been available overseas for some time and it has been proven to save lives.

The New South Wales Government’s hardline approach to drugs has long been criticised. Recently the State Government mooted important changes to drug policy. While some positive changes are being considered, there has been no announcement about what approach the government might take with respect to drugs and music festivals. And it’s an important consideration because music festivals will undoubtedly be back on the agenda sometime soon.

Keeping our young people safe

The research is clear: We need to stop the punitive approach, and reach an understanding that young people will choose to take drugs, or experiment with drugs. Yes, these substances are illegal, but there are appropriate harm minimisation measures we can put into place so that those who want to take the risk, take an informed risk.

There are also changes we can make to policing to ensure that drug users don’t feel stigmatised or scared to seek medical help if they need it.

If we can make these changes isn’t it our social responsibility to do so?



This post is informative only. It is not legal advice. If you have a specific legal matter you’d like to discuss, please contact us

We service NSW, but specifically the area from Coffs Harbour to Byron BayBallina, Mullumbimby and Tweed Heads regions on the Far North NSW Coast.

To learn more about The Local Court Lawyers, see our What We Do page.


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