The debate around drug regulation in Australia continues to rage unabated, as evidenced by the recent July inquiry into the deaths of six festival-goers between July 2018 and January 2019.

The unethical use of police strip searches and other methods was held by some to be Draconian and to trigger sexual assault trauma in vulnerable young people.

With six deaths in less than a year, the inquiry sought to establish causation, plus better methods of detection and regulation. Alex Ross-King, 19, Joshua Tam, 22, Callum Brosnan, 19, Nathan Tran, 18, Joseph Pham, 23, and Diana Nguyen, 21 all died after taking MDMA, with some of them mixing the party drug with other substances and/or alcohol.

A synthetic drug that acts as a stimulant and hallucinogen, MDMA pills can often contain unknown concentrations or other dangerous chemicals. This has seen proposed ‘pill testing’ at festivals enter the public sphere as an option to prevent overdoses.

Current police tactics to prevent drug use at festivals, including strip searches and sniffer dogs, have come under attack from policy reform advocates.

Advocates Call Out Strip-Searches and Sniffer Dogs

Will Tregoning is the executive director of Unharm, a drug education organisation.

He told the NSW Coroners Court that he believed that the line between sexual assault and enforced strip-searches of vulnerable young people is extremely blurred. He also stated the increasing incidence of strip-searches raised questions of whether they were legally implemented.

Mr Tregoning believes that the current approach creates a climate of fear:
“What is striking … is [that] when people recount those stories, they recall a trauma that is associated with sexual assault.”

More Education Needed Among Police

An internal, educational report from the NSW police also recently revealed that officers were undertaking strip-searches without proper processes, and without a clear definition of what they should entail. In addition, recipients were not being given due warning or explanation.

One young woman told the inquest previously that she had felt humiliated after being strip-searched at a Sydney music festival.

The inquest is being presided over by Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame, who herself attended a festival in preparation for the inquiry. The Deputy Coroner stated that the presence of sniffer dogs made even her feel nervous.

A pill-testing demonstration using legal substances was set to take place at the Splendour in the Grass music festival, watched by the Deputy Coroner and other key stakeholders. She was also expected to attend a police briefing with festival organisers.

Body Cavities Used for Concealment

The inquest also heard from RMIT criminology lecturer, Peta Malins, who has researched sniffer dogs and drug use at festivals. She said that festival-goers had told her they concealed drugs in their body cavities to evade detection by sniffer dogs.

The barrister for the NSW Police Commissioner asked the detail to be suppressed, as other methods of concealment have been suppressed during the inquest.

However, the Deputy Coroner Ms. Grahame overruled the request, stating that the information was already in the public domain. In addition, Dr Malins’ research had previously been published. The research paper appeared in the International Journal of Drug Policy in early 2019.

A ‘Dehumanising and Invasive’ Experience

Dr Malins interviewed 22 people who had been searched by police after being indicted by a sniffer dog. It was described as a ‘dehumanising and invasive’ experience. It made recipients feel significantly disempowered. One woman said a strip search had triggered the impact of an incident of sexual and physical abuse in her past.

Advocates Call for More Broad-Minded Approach

Mr Tregoning from Unharm told the inquest that he had used the illicit substance. He confessed out of a sense of social responsibility; to the end of de-stigmatising drug use.In an interview outside the court, he commented that the silence in our society around the topic of prohibited substances perpetuates a harmful status quo.

Dr Stephen Bright, a senior lecturer in addiction at Edith Cowan University in Perth, agrees. In 2017, Dr Bright conducted a covert pill testing trial at a music festival in Victoria. He says that one in ten Australians had used Ecstasy and that it was ‘incredibly normal behaviour’ in Australian society.

He also pointed out that drug education in schools also needs to address the enjoyable aspects of taking drugs, otherwise credibility is reduced with teenagers who are aware that they have a pleasurable impact. With no clear solutions, the debate around festival drug use and regulation will no doubt continue to rage for some time to come.


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