The state government’s crackdown on drug use at music festivals is likely to have a negative impact on the organisers of these events, including local festivals such as Falls and Splendour in the Grass, the state’s peak body for contemporary music says.
And it says the crackdown is unlikely to reduce drug-related injuries or deaths at festivals because it focuses on punitive measures rather than harm minimisation.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on October 23 that she would adopt the recommendations of an expert panel set up in response to the suspected drug-related deaths of two people at Sydney’s Defcon Festival last month.
Charged with finding ways to reduce such deaths at festivals, the panel recommended a raft of new penalties and regulations.
These included introducing a new maximum 25-year penalty for drug dealers who sold substances that resulted in a death, and on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for drug possession.
The panel also recommended that the government introduce a new licensing regime, requiring organisers to adhere to stringent safety management plans for their events, and establish an inter-agency committee to assess risk.
But the managing director of Music NSW, Emily Collins, said that the proposed changes had significant flaws, both in terms of the impact on festival organisers and their effectiveness in keeping people safe.
Though music festivals in Byron Shire regularly come in for criticism from residents in relation to noise and general amenity, they remain a major contributor to the local economy and a source of entertainment.
Ms Collins said, ‘Currently it looks like pretty much every single festival in NSW will be considered “high risk” by the indicators they’ve listed.’
‘This unfairly targets regional festivals (who might not have a major health facility nearby), summer festivals (as the weather is listed as risk factor), and small/boutique festivals who might not have the resources to comply with some of the high-risk safety measures.’
Ms Collins said that the recommendations would also add an extra layer of complexity to the ‘already incredibly complex process’ of organising a festival.
The expert panel appeared to have ignored the lengths organisers already went to in trying to keep patrons safe, including working closely with other agencies such as Councils and local health services, Ms Collins said.
She attributed this, in part, to a lack of consultation with organisers.
Panel membership questioned
‘Myself, two festival operators and an academic attended a 90-minute meeting with the premier’s expert panel in which there were about 14 other non-festival groups [but that was it],’ she said.
Significant questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of the new measures to reduce drug-related harm.
‘Given that most evidence suggests that heavy-handed policing doesn’t deter dealers or drug users, it’s unlikely it’ll have the impact they’re hoping,’ Ms Collins said.
‘Experts in this field say that a health-focused approach has the best impact on the safety of festival-goers, and not just drug safety, but general safety.
‘Unfortunately, if someone has taken an illegal substance, reports say they’re very unlikely to seek help from police because they fear getting in trouble.’
The organisers of Falls Festival and Splendour in the Grass were either reluctant or unavailable to comment when contacted by The Echo.
However, Bluesfest chief operating officer Steve Romer said his event welcomed ‘any efforts to make attending festivals safer’.
‘Bluesfest already operates under very stringent licensing regulations, including annual risk and safety management plans in liaison with law enforcement authorities, and will always support any improvements to licensing arrangements,’ Mr Romer said.
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said: ‘the current ad-hoc and inconsistent regulatory approach to music festivals does not ensure community safety and is a source of frustration to promoters’.
‘The inter-agency committee will seek to work with promoters to assist them in meeting their obligations.’