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Zero Tolerance crackdowns and harm minimisation have mutually exclusive goals

On Saturday 17 of June, the Herald Sun published what they claim was an exclusive interview with Police Minister Lisa Neville. They “revealed” that ‘Police [were] to get new “stop and search” powers to stamp out drugs at dance festivals’.

Without any Bill before the Legislative Assembly, any public statement from Neville or the Premier on their individual offices’ or the Parliament’s communication platforms, nor any formal references produced by the Herald Sun in their article, the proposed “overhaul” reads as sensationalist. If “Victoria Police and the state government are in talks to change the law to increase the scope for officers to search festival-goers”, the first information available in the public domain on this matter came from the Herald Sun.

The Herald Sun notes the aim of the allegedly proposed reform is to “stamp out illicit drug use that has caused a spate of deaths and mass overdoses in recent years”. The event involving 20 transportations from Sidney Myer Music Bowl in February this year is cited as a critical motivating factor: “…more than 20 people—many fighting for their life—were taken to hospital after a mass overdose of GHB, a form of liquid ecstasy…”.  Unpacking that last quote:

  • None of the transports from Sidney Myer Music Bowl were time-critical, let alone fatal, with all 20 patients being discharged that night or the next day;
  • GHB is not a form of ‘liquid ecstasy’. It was originally a legal medicine administered for sleep disorders and its chemistry is not similar to ‘MDMA’, the substance that attracts the colloquialism ‘ecstasy’; and
  • If 20 transports from 1 festival earlier in 2017 is the most concerning example of “very serious harm at music festivals” that has “helped spur the [call for reform] action”, a reasonable corollary is that the “drug activity…at music festivals” only accounts for a fractional minority of the “10,600 illicit drug [ambulance] call-outs statewide a year—equal to 30 emergencies a day”.

The Herald Sun does not provide a reference for their statistics on overdoses, but from the ‘Ambulance Victoria 2015-2016 Annual Report’ we know the “AV research portfolio includes collaborations with key organisations, including…Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre and…In 2015–2016, a total of 66 research projects were active in the AV research governance system”. Turning Point’s AOD statistics show that in the 2014-2015 financial year, Ambulance Victoria attended 17,946 alcohol-related call-outs alone. This is almost double the 9,038 call-outs they recorded for all illicit drug-related overdoses combined in that year, and from the weekend’s article we understand that number has risen to “10,600”. Meanwhile, according to Ambulance Victoria’s records there were 10,541 prescription drug overdose call-outs too, which is addressed later below.

An ambulance rushes through Melbourne. Image by Justin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While there’s no formal documentation available in the public domain, a question was put to the Police Minister in an unrelated press conference on Sunday 18 June. The Premier, Attorney-General, and Minister Neville, hosted a press conference to address the ‘Door-step Terrorism Laws Review’, which lasted for 30 minutes. Premier Andrews began by stating: “Thank you for joining us this morning for an important announcement in relation to Terror and threats in our community and doing whatever is necessary to keep the Victorian community safe”.

Twenty minutes of discussion about terrorist threats and appropriate responses passed before a member of the press requested to ask a question on a different note: “talk us through the zero-tolerance crackdown on drugs at music festivals”? The Premier referred the question to the Police Minister whom affirmed the Herald Sun’s report, and arguably no new information was provided. Neville confirmed the Government and Victoria Police are in discussions about:

  1. The use of illicit drugs and overdoses at a “…certain type of music festival, particularly out in our rural, regional communities, the raves…”; and;
  2. Increasing event organiser accountability. More information is needed on these proposed reforms. Sunday’s press conference was the first opportunity the broader media had to question the Police Minister. Yet the setting, a press conference on terror and security threats, risks the conflation of the two very different matters.

Consider the few details the Herald Sun provides about this “zero tolerance crackdown on drug-riddled dance festivals” that the Victorian government allegedly intends to undertake, Police Officers would no longer require “reasonable suspicion…to look for drugs”. That is, stop and search powers without any reason. At present and in general, Victoria Police have the power to conduct stop searches upon “reasonable grounds”. ‘Reasonable suspicion’ is a lesser evidentiary threshold than ‘reasonable grounds’.

In 2015 the heavily criticised Move-On Laws (which set this lesser ‘reasonable suspicion’ threshold as the test for police to conduct searches as well as request people leave certain public spaces) were implemented and subsequently revoked within a year by the Andrews Labor Government due to their “draconian” nature. Why then, only 2 years later, would the Government be allegedly considering expanding police stop and search powers again, but this time dropping the evidence threshold from ‘reasonable grounds’ to ‘without reason’? Again, there are no official public statements nor a Bill to assess, yet the Herald Sun notes: “Music Festivals where there is significant intelligence of drug problems would be made designated events under the Major Sporting Event Act [2009] to enable police to use greater powers”, suggesting that an amendment to the Major Sporting Event Act 2009 (the ‘MSE Act’), rather than the introduction of new legislation, would be the instrument to provide police officers with expanded search powers that target festival goers.

At present, section 90 of the MSE Act catalogues the discretion for an ‘authorised officer’ (which includes “police officers”, Section 183) for the purposes of inspection and searching of event patrons. While through its silence the MSE Act allows authorised officers to request such inspection without reason, patrons may refuse to comply and in turn be refused entry to the event venue or area (S 90(4), (5)). If, as the Herald Sun alleges, the MSE Act is the intended instrument the government will use to expand police search powers regarding festival goers, then the reform would need to be at least two-fold: with Part 2 being reformed so ‘Major sporting event orders’ can and are issued in regard to music festivals; and other parts of the MES Act would need amendment as well, for example, all ‘authorised officers’ under the MES Act or would only police be given expanded search powers, plus the removal of sections that currently allow patrons to refuse a search but be denied entry.

Future Music Festival. Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC BY-SA 2.0).

While the Herald Sun’s article does not provide any formal references, and therefore may be largely speculative, it is indicated that sources other than Lisa Neville were considered before publishing. For example, in a floating single sentence-paragraph, Daniel Buccianti’s “mother” is paraphrased as “calling for drugs to be legalised and made at reputable laboratories”. I called Adriana Buccianti to query her opinion on the Herald Sun’s paraphrase and she stated that she felt that her statements had been taken “out of context”. She told me that she has made comments that drug law reform considerations should include legalising and regulating some substances that are currently illicit, but only as part of broader reforms that frame drug use as a health not a criminal matter. Andriana Buccianti also advocates for pill testing to be used as a harm reduction tool, and she launched a petition last year that has gained 38,734 signatures from supporters for pill testing to be introduced in Australia, like the programs that have been successfully run in various EU nations since the 1990s.

Further, the Herald Sun’s article closes with: “Ambulance Victoria chief executive Assoc Prof Tony Walker, in a recent parliamentary inquiry submission, said illicit drug abuse was putting unprecedented pressure on paramedics, drawing resources away from the wider community”. Upon reading Ambulance Victoria’s submission dated 27 March 2017 to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform, it is obvious the Herald Sun’s article includes several two-to-three word quotes from Ambulance Victoria’s submission without any reference and, when paraphrasing Ambulance Victoria’s submission in the closing paragraph, omits that Ambulance Victoria’s submission cites “The misuse of illicit and prescription drugs…is an increasingly problem…”. The Ambulance Victoria submission does not call for some kind of ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug policy; nor will one find the word ‘unprecedented’ or the phrase ‘unprecedented pressure’. As we know from Turning Point’s findings, the pressure placed on Ambulance Victoria by alcohol-related harm dwarfs that of illicit drug use.

To be clear, ‘Zero Tolerance’ and ‘Harm Minimisation’ are mutually exclusive approaches to drug policy. Drug law reform is an important health issue and it’s a role of the media to facilitate Government transparency on its decision-making processes and actions for the sake of public interest. Irrespective of what drug law reform the Victorian Government implements, or not; and whether such reform waits for the Parliamentary Inquiry’s findings, or not; AOD Media Watch is concerned about reports that sensationalise drug use and related health issues, and reporting practices that risk the conflation of drug use with terrorism as occurred in Sunday’s press conference. Instead we advocate an open dialogue regarding policy rather than a zero tolerance crackdown policy vacuum.

Stephanie Tzanetis, Dancewize coordinator, Harm Reduction Victoria

AOD Media Watch Reviewers: 

  • Jenny Valentish, Freelance journalist
  • Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University & Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University

Disclaimer: The authors take full responsibility for the content of this article

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