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October 20, 2021

Voluntary breath testing at festivals about to fold

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Nicqui Yazdi, Matthew Evans from the Falls Festival and Splendour in the Grass, MP Tamara Smith, Phil Preston from the STEER project and Jeremy Holmes from Elements. Photo Aslan Shand.

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An organisation that provides voluntary breath testing and drug and alcohol information for music festival patrons says that without political and financial support, it will ‘cease operation in the next month.’

Despite STEER Project being supported by local Nationals MLC and 2019 Ballina candidate, Ben Franklin, he is yet to confirm if his government will step up to assist with the vital program. Franklin told The Echo he was ‘very impressed’ with the program and will be raising the organisers’ concerns ‘with relevant ministers and offices within the government.’

Meanwhile local Greens MP Tamara Smith told The Echo she has been ‘making representations to the minister on behalf of STEER Project since 2015.’ She says it’s time for a sensible critique of the Liberal-National’s failed war on drugs, ‘and that practical initiatives like this were embraced.’

STEER Project is led by local firefighter Phil Preston and since 2010 the program has gained groundswell support from festivals, Byron Council, local police and youth organisations.

Draconian response

The threat of closure for the program comes as the government released a draconian response to illicit drug use at festivals last week, which was roundly criticised for ignoring health- and education- focused solutions.

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.

New penalties include a 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.

Yet the state’s peak body for contemporary music, Music NSW, say the proposed changes added complexity and had significant flaws, both in terms of the impact on festival organisers and their effectiveness in keeping people safe.

Music NSW managing director Emily Collins told The Echo, ‘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.’

Illicit drug focus

In a letter to local state politicians and councillors on October 24, STEER Project’s Phil Preston said the Keeping People Safe at Music Festivals Report, which underpinned the government response and was authored by an ‘expert panel’, focused ‘largely on illicit drugs’.

Preston wrote, ‘It’s not just illicit drugs killing people. In NSW during 2015, alcohol was found to be a contributing factor in 47 per cent of fatal crashes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.’

‘I suggest there is a model we can use to complement the ‘war-on-drugs’. It is a model STEER Project have successfully implemented since 2013 to reduce alcohol-related harm at music festivals and community events.

‘The model could be adapted to similarly reduce drug-related harm. The STEER voluntary breathtesting model is founded on establishing trusted person-to-person connections with patrons. Within that trusted connection we offer information and resources associated with alcohol consumption and safe driving, eg knowledge of standard drinks, monitoring/counting number of standard drinks, awareness of different rates of alcohol absorption for each individual, providing an accurate measure of BAC and discussion of transport options. The voluntary breath-testing model has been found particularly relevant for P-plate patrons who have a BAC of 0. STEER Project actively promote the Plan B message: “If you are drinking, don’t drive,” and also promote the message, “If you are driving, drink alcohol-free alternatives”.’ 

Yet NSW police have not offered support in terms of providing voluntary breath testing. NSW Police Assistant Commissioner J Corbey wrote to STEER’s Phil Preston last August, and said the NSW Police Force cannot provide support for informal, or voluntary, breath-testing measures.

Corbey said it ‘May serve to provide a false impression that a person may be able to drive after consuming alcohol.’ The road safety initiatives supported by the NSW Police, he says, include, ‘the fundamental principal [sic] of if you are drinking, don’t drive.’

Failed drug war

The Echo asked Local MP Tamara Smith why she believes the police are unsupportive of voluntary testing. She replied,  ‘I think that the government resists alcohol self-testing at festivals because it is so against self-testing of other substances.’

‘The war on drugs rhetoric precludes the idea that drug users (alcohol is a drug) can take responsibility for their drug use. If they support alcohol self-testing then what is to stop pill testing – and we know that the nanny state and the LNP fear pill-testing philosophically more than they fear the deaths every year from pills at festivals.’ 

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  1. Please don’t panic! Free breathaliser services are NOT going to disappear from local festivals! I think the title of this article is very misleading. Voluntary breath testing at festivals around Byron Shire will not stop, and even if the STEER program does fold, free breath testing at festivals here has been going now since 2010, when the BUDDI Community Drug Action Team partnered with Byron Youth Service to deliver this important harm-reduction service at the Bluesfest and this free service has continued to be delivered, either though BYS, BUDDI or STEER at every festival since then, including Splendour In the Grass and the Falls Festival and also the Byron Schoolies HUB, where we do ‘Blow Zero Comps’ with the schoolies, which is where the photo the Echo published was taken.

    While police may have an issue with the provision of services such as this, it is certainly not illegal and these services at local festivals will continue, with groups such as our BUDDI Community Drug Action Team also waiting in the wings for when safe drug checking services will also be legalised, which most of us working in health and AOD (alcohol & other drugs) believe is inevitable. The war on drugs has been a massive failure, however the ‘war on the war on drugs’ has gained much momentum of late and less than two weeks ago I personally attended the launch of the Fair Treatment Campaign in Sydney, led by the Uniting Church in partnership with more than 60 other organisations, including the Alcohol & Drug Foundation, who manage the Community Drug Action Team program across NSW and the Local Drug Action Team program across the whole of Australia. The Fair Treatment Campaign was launched at the Sydney Town Hall by Richard Branson, with more than 2000 health, AOD, mental health and youth workers, lawyers, doctors and other medical and treatment specialists in attendance and this Friday those participating in the Fair Treatment Campaign ‘Long Walk’ will arrive in Sydney, having taken 100 walkers 15 days to walk the more than half a million steps from Dubbo to Sydney, symbolising the distance so many people in our country need to travel to receive any alcohol or drug treatments.

    I can honestly say that every person involved in this massive campaign would be totally appalled at NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s pathetic three-person panel outcomes and the fact that so little consultation was actually carried out by this panel and the recommendations go completely against what all of us are fighting for, which is decriminalisation of drugs such as cannabis and for adequate funding for treatment services, harm-minimisation programs and early intervention services. It’s time that the Government actually listened to the extensive list of true experts in this debate and not just engaged biased small panels such as in this latest debacle!

    The BUDDI Community Drug Action Team is already in negotiations to potentially step in and take over the STEER Project early next year, should the coordinator Phil Preston decide to resign from this program and we are also in discussions with other providers of breathaliser services at local festivals to make sure that drivers at festivals here do continue to have the opportunity to test their alcohol levels before leaving festivals to drive home. BUDDI has been in a partnership with the STEER program throughout this year, in delivery of Project Turn Around, to provide harm-reduction education and free breathaliser services in order to make local festivals and community events safer for drivers in Byron Shire and while the funding for this program is up at the end of this year, these services will continue through BUDDI.


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