Study finds fear of police deters a third of Australian festivalgoers seeking help in a drug emergency

One of the researchers who co-authored the study said reform for drug policy at festival should "focus on a harm-reduction approach rather than a punitive one"

A new report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre indicates that, for more than a third of young people who attend large music festivals in Australia, fear of getting in trouble from police deterred them from seeking assistance in a drug health emergency like an overdose or medical issue caused by an illicit substance.

The centre’s findings, which were published in Drug and Alcohol Review on Tuesday (May 24), were drawn from a survey conducted by 1,229 people – more than 80 per cent of whom were under the age of 26 – across six large one-day music festivals held during the summer of 2019/20.

35 per cent of respondents, and 41 per cent of drug users, said fear of police and subsequent consequences was a deterrent in seeking help. The study found that this barrier was more likely among people taking drugs and those who indicated having a diverse sexuality.

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Not knowing where to find help (20 per cent) and worrying about family or friends finding out (15 per cent) also served as deterrents. Overall, 83 per cent of young festivalgoers said there was at least one reason they would avoid seeking assistance for a drug-related emergency.

Dr Jonathan Brett, a drug and alcohol specialist who co-authored the study, told the Sydney Morning Herald that reform for drug policy at festivals should “focus on a harm-reduction approach rather than a punitive one”.

“Drug use is a health issue, and this report has indicated treating it as a criminal issue has negative consequences,” added Greg Chipp, managing director of advocacy group Drug Policy Australia.

There has been significant support for the harm reduction method of pill testing to be introduced at music festivals in Australia, with a 2019 study – which surveyed more than 2,000 respondents – finding that nearly two thirds of Australians supported the practice at music festivals.

The efficacy of pill testing has also been evidenced in Australia – with support from the ACT government, trials were held at the Canberra leg of Groovin The Moo in 2018 and 2019. Organisers had also planned for pill testing services to be run at this year’s event, but those plans were cancelled just days out due to complications with insurers.

In their findings from the 2019 event, Pill Testing Australia described it as an “overwhelming success”, saying that 170 substances were tested for 234 participants, with seven potentially fatal substances found. When the potential harm of consuming them was raised, all festivalgoers used an amnesty bin to discard them.

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In November 2019, following a coronial inquest into six drug-related deaths at music festivals in New South Wales over the summer of 2017 and 2018, coroner Harriet Grahame supported pill testing, as well as limiting the police practices of strip searches and sniffer dogs at festivals.

Despite this, pill testing and other harm reduction methods are yet to receive wide support from mainstream government. Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian remained firmly against the practice following the results of the coronial inquest, and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said in 2019 that the state government “won’t be changing our policy” in response to calls for pill testing to be introduced at events.

Last year, a New Zealand pill testing organisation said Australia’s measures to limit drug deaths at music festivals served as an example of what not to do when it came to harm reduction efforts.

“We looked at Australia before we started doing this and we went, ‘Sniffer dogs, strip searches, dead kids – we’re not doing that,'” Know Your Stuff NZ’s Wendy Allison said when speaking to triple j’s Hack program in April 2021.

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