Live sector ready to ‘work together’ following music festival inquiry
The 28 recommendations that NSW deputy coroner Harriet Graham posted when she closed her inquiry into the six drug deaths at the state’s festivals on Friday (November 8) put forward a commanding proposition indeed.
The two standout suggestions, which got immediate coverage in the mainstream media, were the ones which encouraged pill testing at festivals and the banning of sniffer dogs.
A drug summit and a roundtable were also thongs that the live music industry has been calling for.
But there were other significant proposals, mainly aimed at the NSW Government, and its police force, which would have meant an entire overhaul of their current policies and attitudes.
For instance, a difference is made between strip-searching and penalizing drug suppliers and those having recreational (that is, a minimal amount of) illicit drugs.
“There is significant evidence that intensive and punitive drug policing operations targeting users and low-level dealers generally work to increase, rather than decrease drug-related risks and harms,” deputy coroner, Graham, said.
Harm reduction organisation Unharm called such suggestions “sensible” and Pill Testing Australia referred to them as being part of “a powerful document”.
Understandably, police bristled at the charge that its tactics were potentially adding to punters’ woes than protecting them.
Graham made the observation: “There is significant evidence that intensive and punitive drug policing operations targeting users and low-level dealers generally work to increase, rather than decrease drug-related risks and harms.”
She also said cops were not stopping drugs going into festivals, and that sniffer dogs and strip searches were simply panicking patrons into risky rug consumption.
NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller responded, saying he would “strongly” defend any suggestion his officers were implicit the deaths of the six patrons aged under 24.
Kevin Morton, vice president of the NSW Police Association said, “Our police are performing their duties, taking into account their oath of office to uphold the law, and that’s simply what we’re doing at those festivals.”
He told ABC News that police would be happy to take part in a drug summit, but angry at the coroner court’s insinuation that police protocol at music events endangered lives.
“Any inference that police going about their normal day to day duties to protect these young and the vulnerable that their presence has caused deaths at these festivals is offensive and simply wrong,” he said.
The NSW Premier has said she will “consider” the recommendations, but has made her position on pill testing “very clear”.
But it did underline that why a roundtable was needed was for everyone to be on the same page by thrashing out contentious issues.
More importantly, there has to be a mindset shift on all fronts, including from the live music industry.
‘We need to work together…’
Through the Australian Festival Association (AFA), the deputy coroner directed a few recommendations to festival promoters.
These included festival guidelines that provide free cold water, enough chill-out areas, more on-music activities, and get more of their artists to become involved in harm minimization procedures.
It also encouraged promoters to sponsor novel harm reduction strategies, including new technologies.
AFA general manager Julia Robinson, who attended each day of the inquest, welcomed the deputy coroner’s report and its canvassing of a wide range of experts’ opinions.
“This was an extremely important process for our industry that will likely shape the future of festivals not just in NSW, but across Australia,” Robinson said.
“It was a thorough review of all aspects of these six tragedies that found a complex problem, requiring a multi-faceted solution.’
“There is no one solution here. We need to work together to address this issue. One of the recommendations is for a roundtable to do just that.
“A Parliamentary Inquiry into Music Festival Regulations, the Inquiry into the Drug ICE as well as this Coronial Inquest into Music Festival Deaths have all recommended a roundtable.
“This echo’s the industry’s sentiment. We stand ready to work together.”
Live Performance Australia’s chef executive Evelyn Richardson added: “We urge the NSW government to give proper consideration to these recommendations and take the steps necessary to prevent further drug-related harm.
“The music festivals industry has repeatedly put on the public record our desire to work with government on these issues, including its music festival regulations.
“The coroner’s recommendations include a regulatory roundtable involving government and industry stakeholders.
“This must be a priority in the lead-up to the next summer festival season.”
- Allow qualified organisations to run front-of-house drug checking at music festivals
- Fund a permanent Dutch-style community-based drug checking service
- Develop technology to allow for sophisticated drug analysis, early warning systems of drugs deemed toxic at the tests, and get police, forensics, NSW Health and the NSW State Coroner to share data on trends in drug-taking.
- Develop early warning systems for dangerous pills, based on results from drug checking
- Facilitate data sharing on drug trends between police, forensics, NSW Health and the NSW State Coroner
- Consult with promoters to reintroduce minimum medical and harm reduction standards
- Consider bolstering regulations with improved mobile phone and WiFi reception at festivals and a central authority to approve events
Recommendations to NSW Health included improved pre-hospital guidelines for overheating, gain a greater idea of how MDMA works and how to spot risks and to establish and coordinate an annual review of music festival guidelines.
The NSW Education Standards Authority were also advised to include in their curriculums deaths at music festivals (with a focus on MDMA effects) and the importance of sensing when the body is heating and finding medical help.