NZ government funds drug checks at live music events
New Zealand’s government has put NZD 800,000 (€494,000) towards recreational drug checks at festivals and concerts.
While pill testing in the country has operated to some extent for years, the Labour government only legalised operations in December 2020 to allow for pill testing at last year’s summer festivals.
However, due to a lack of funding, the country’s main provider of drug testing services wasn’t able to operate at most major events.
NZ’s health minister says the new funding will be used to train more drug-checkers and establish national coordination of pill testing services.
“This is not about condoning drug use, but about keeping people safe,” health minister Andrew Little said in a statement.
“There is clear evidence that having drug-checking services at festivals changes behaviour and reduces harm.”
The National Party’s justice spokesman, Simon Bridges, says it’s a “slippery” move towards decriminalisation “by stealth” but the Green Party supports the funding.
“This is not about condoning drug use, but about keeping people safe”
A study from Victoria University, released in February, argued the presence of Know Your Stuff at festivals reduced drug use.
The study found 68% of people either disposed of their drugs or changed their consumption habits after checking the drugs at the Know Your Stuff tent.
“Festival organisers who invited Know Your Stuff to their events noted fewer serious incidents related to illicit drug use and emphasised the importance,” says associate professor of criminology Fiona Hutton.
In neighbouring Australia, the live music industry has long been lobbying for pill testing at music festivals – which has been successfully trialled twice in 2018 and 2019.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of the Australian public are in favour of pill testing at music festivals, recent national data shows.
The UK government has also been urged to support drug testing at festivals in order to increase the safety of festivalgoers.
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Dutch minister: We need fewer festivals
The Dutch festival market remains one of the most vibrant in the world. EM Cultuur estimates the Netherlands’ festivals will receive 19.5 million visitors in 2019 alone, while IQ’s recent market report found that it’s “hard to find anyone, in fact, who doesn’t believe the Dutch live business is broadly in the prime of its life”. But what if, instead of there being lots of festivals, there weren’t?
That’s the question being posed by the country’s justice minister, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, who is calling for a reduction in the number of festivals to help police crack down on illegal drug use.
In the Netherlands, it is legal to possess small quantity of drugs at festivals for personal use, according to NLTimes.nl, though a larger quantity (ie for supplying) should see the owner hauled off to a police station for questioning. This, however, is hardly ever enforced, suggests Grapperhaus, owing to the sheer number of music events that need to be policed.
“The problem is that we have 1,100 festivals in the Netherlands”
“The problem is that we have 1,100 festivals in the Netherlands,” he says in an interview with the Telegraaf today. “Do we have to deploy all our police to that end?”
Asked by the paper whether he thinks the number of festivals should be decreased, he replies: “Yes. I think we should be critical and say: can we handle all this?”
The Netherlands, known for its liberal attitude towards drug use, most famous cannabis, is one of several European countries where authorities tolerate drug testing on festival sites as a harm-reduction measure.
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Drug testing saves lives at GTM Canberra festival
The Pill Testing Australia (PTA) consortium returned to Canberra-based music festival Groovin the Moo for the second time this year, with increased numbers of punters using the service and a higher quantity of lethal substances detected.
The consortium, previously known as the Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE), detected seven lethal substances among the 171 samples tested.
The testing revealed the potential fatal samples to contain n-ethylpentylone, a substituted cathinone believed to be responsible for a number of deaths, detected for the first time in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) during the first drug-testing trial at Groovin’ the Moo last year.
PTA reports that in all seven cases, those found to possess potentially harmful substances elected to discard the drugs in the amnesty bin after learning about the dangers involved.
MDMA, cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine were also identified during the trial at Groovin the Moo (20,000-cap.) which featured performances from Billie Eilish and Hilltop Hoods.
According to PTA, the second edition of the pill testing service was “overwhelmingly positive”. The organisation carried out twice the amount of tests as the year before, with 234 punters opting to use the service, compared to 129 in 2018.
Despite the success, PTA has announced that the drug testing at this year’s Groovin the Moo would be the last free trial it runs in the ACT, as enough data has been collected to prove the pilot works.
“This is a healthcare intervention and we are trying to encourage young people to learn a little about the stuff they are putting into themselves”
A PTA representative confirms that the consortium would like to continue testing but could not do so on a self-funding basis.
“Pill Testing Australia is a not-for-profit, we’re only looking at cost recovery,” says PTA co-founder, Gino Vumbaca.
The organisation is crowdfunding to run further pill-testing trials at music festivals, as well as exploring the use of public subscriptions and promoter-based funding. PTA has ruled out charging festivalgoers for the service.
“We will never charge the punter,” says PTA’s Dr David Caldicott. “This is a healthcare intervention and we are trying to encourage young people to learn a little about the stuff they are putting into themselves.”
The ACT is currently the only state in Australia to allow pill testing. ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris says the state government is committed to “contemporary approaches”, focused on harm reduction, rather than punitive practices.
Groovin the Moo festivals taking place in Adelaide and Maitland, New South Wales (NSW), over the weekend (26 to 28 April) did not offer pill-testing services. NSW police said 14 people were taken to hospital with suspected drug and alcohol intoxication cases at the Maitland festival.
NSW has been at the centre of the pill testing discussion, following a strong of drug-related deaths at festivals in the region. The government has consistently rejected calls to introduce testing services, opting for the implementation of new licensing laws that demand detailed safety plans from festival organisers and impose significant licensing and security costs.
Bluesfest threatens to leave NSW in policy dispute
The founder of Byron Bay Bluesfest, Peter Noble, is one of several music industry professionals to speak out against the New South Wales government over heightened licensing and security costs for music festivals.
“I am saying now, Bluesfest will leave NSW. We have no choice it’s a matter of survival. Will the last festival to leave NSW please turn out the light of culture in this soon to be barren state?” writes Bluesfest founder, Noble.
The NSW government introduced new licensing regulations for music festivals last month, following a string of suspected drug-related deaths at festivals in the state. The regulations place more responsibility on festival organisers to ensure the safety of patrons and incur many additional licensing and security costs.
The government continues to refuse to introduce drug testing at festivals in the state, despite calls from the Australian Festival Association and family and friends of the deceased.
The Byron Bay Bluesfest, set to take place from 18 to 22 April, this year celebrates its 30th anniversary, in what is tipped to be the festival’s “best year ever”.
Noble states that the event’s designation of ‘high risk’ under the new legislation signifies the revocation of the festival’s full-strength liquor license and “a myriad of other costs”, totalling “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
Noble describes the policy as “poorly thought-out, unbalanced legislation”, and states the government has implemented new laws “without full consultation of stake holders, or meetings with entertainment industry professionals.”
“Will the last festival to leave NSW please turn out the light of culture in this soon to be barren state?”
“I charge the Government with a systemic failure in fairness here, and implore all politicians from all parties to quickly become involved with what is a serious injustice,” writes Noble.
Mountain Sounds, which announced the cancellation a week before the event was scheduled to take place, accuses the government of “fear-mongering, bullying and oppressing the youth”, in what it refers to as a “war on festivals”.
“We were told we would have to pay an additional upfront amount of approximately $200,000 for 45 user pay police on a 24 hour cycle. This came one week out from the festival and blindsided us as we were quoted for 11 user pay police on the 18th of January,” reads the organisers’ statement.
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Australian music festivals face strict licensing laws
The government in New South Wales has introduced new licensing regulations for music festivals following a string of suspected drug-related deaths at festivals in the southeastern Australian state.
Since September, five young festivalgoers have died after attending music festivals in NSW. The most recent fatality occurred earlier this month, when 19-year-old Alex Ross-King collapsed and died at the Sydney edition of FOMO festival.
From March, festival organisers will have to apply for specific liquor licences, similar to those required for pubs and clubs. A panel of experts will decide whether to approve each application before a license can be issued.
It is thought that representatives from NSW Health, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance, and Liquor and Gaming NSW will comprise the panel. The licences will be targeted to the risks that each event entails.
“Events with a poor track record and heightened risk will face greater oversight from authorities”
The new regulations come following recommendations of an expert panel which was formed to advise the government on how to keep festivalgoers safe, following two deaths at Defqon.1 festival in September.
The licensing laws place heightened responsibility on festival organisers to ensure the safety of patrons, placing the onus on them to assess and proactively manage safety risks.
“Festival organisers will need to ensure their events meet high safety standards,” says minister for liquor, gaming and racing Paul Toole. “Events with a poor track record and heightened risk will face greater oversight from authorities.”
Until the new scheme comes into effect in March, interim measures at festivals will include “chill-out zones” staffed by medical professionals to help those who feel unwell. Obligatory free water stations will also be introduced.
Australian Festival Association: Drug policy “endangering lives”
The newly formed Australian Festival Association (AFA) has written to government urging urgent drug policy reform following the deaths of several Australian festivalgoers over the Christmas period.
Suspected drug-related fatalities over the festive period – mid-summer in Australia, and the height of its festival season – include a 19-year-old man, Callum Brosnan, at Knockout Games of Destiny in Sydney, a 20-year-old man at Beyond the Valley in Larnder, near Melbourne, and a 22-year-old man, Joshua Tam, at Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley.
Despite the deaths – and a pill testing trial at last year’s Groovin the Moo that was hailed an “overwhelming success” by harm-reduction campaigners – the government of New South Wales (NSW), which contains Sydney and the Glenworth Valley, has once again rejected industry calls for permitting drug testing at live music events.
“The government position is quite clear on pill testing: We oppose the use of illegal drugs at these festivals,” NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts told reporters in Sydney. “We appeal to you, just enjoy the festival and do it without taking drugs.”
“Encouraging drug abstinence instead of education is out-of-touch, proven to be ineffective and unnecessarily risking lives”
In an open letter to Australia’s six state premiers and two chief ministers, the AFA today warned that by continuing to “encourag[e] drug abstinence instead of education”, the country’s decision-makers are endangering festivalgoers’ lives.
The AFA, which launched in December, represents Australian festival producers, promoters, organisers and operators. Its 2019 board is Jessica Ducrou (Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival, Download), Adelle Robinson (Listen Out, Listen In, Field Day, Harbourlife, Curve Ball), Danny Rogers (Laneway), Matthew Lazarus-Hall (CMC Rocks) and Rod Little (Groovin the Moo, the Plot).
Read the AFA’s open letter in full below.
We are deeply saddened to hear of the deaths at Australian festivals during the recent holiday period and our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. Our thoughts are also with the medical, festival, production, security and law enforcement staff who were on the ground when these tragedies occurred.
Drug use is a complex issue and the current policies and strategies of our state and territory governments are needlessly endangering lives. Be it abuse of prescription medications, MDMA use at festivals or the devastating impact of ice [methamphetamine] on some of our regional communities, drug use is a national health issue that impacts many Australian families. We need to better understand drug use behaviour, identify significant intervention points, better coordinate between regulators, health, police, businesses and broader communities, and make sure that the health and safety of Australians is the ultimate priority.
As festival promoters, the last thing we want is someone to be hurt under our care. We need to be able to legally implement preventative strategies, not just reactive ones, and include any harm minimization [sic] tools that are available. We believe, and have evidence to support, that a combination of robust harm minimization strategies will help Australians make safer choices and reduce the harmful impacts of drug use on festival-goers and the broader community. This necessarily involves a collaborative, multi-layered approach of drug education, peer-to-peer support, pill-testing, health services and policing.
We ask state and territory governments across Australia to:
- Establish on-going state-based Music Festival Regulation Roundtables to ensure better relationships between regulators, medical experts, promoters, emergency service providers and law enforcement
- Utilise the significant experience and expertise of the Australian Festivals Association (AFA) – the national festivals representative body – and appoint AFA members to Regulation Roundtables across the states and territories
- Work with health, festival and drug experts to develop pill-testing trials
- Adopt an evidence-based, health-focused approach to drug regulation and commission further research into recreational drug use
- Collaborate to convene a national drug summit to allow in-depth, meaningful, expert-led discussion around drug use
We do not believe that pill-testing is the only answer. But it is a crucial part of a broader harm reduction strategy that prioritises people’s health and safety, over criminality or laws. Encouraging drug abstinence instead of education is out-of-touch, proven to be ineffective and unnecessarily risking lives. Young people deserve better. Older people deserve better. Families deserve better.
We implore Premier Berejiklian, Premier Andrews, Premier Marshall, Premier McGowan, Premier Palaszczuk, Premier Hodgman, Chief Minister Gunner and Chief Minister Barr to be open to better ideas and to work with experts on making festivals safer for everyone.
Fellowes, Drape, Measham on the case for drug testing
The Loop director Fiona Measham, Broadwick Live’s Jon Drape and Secret Garden Party promoter Freddie Fellowes joined AFEM CEO Mark Lawrence at IMS Ibiza last month to discuss drug testing at festivals and clubs.
‘The Case for Drug Testing at Events, presented by The Loop’, on day two of IMS, saw the two festival bosses – both of whom have led the way in implementing the Loop’s multi-agency safety testing (MAST) at their events – talk with Measham and Lawrence about their experience of front-of-house pill testing, and its effectiveness in reducing the harm associated with drug use, with Fellowes describing the growth of MAST as “the first meaningful change in harm-reduction policy that I’ve seen in our industry” in 20 years.
Calling for change, Measham, also professor of criminology at Durham University, said in order to avoid future drug fatalities at festivals, “we need to is actually encourage a more healthy relationship with drugs”.
Watch the panel in full, exclusively on IQ, above.
First Oz pill testing trial “an overwhelming success”
Australia’s first-ever front-of-house festival drugs testing, at Groovin the Moo in Canberra in April, has been hailed an “overwhelming success” by organisers, paving the way for its roll-out at future events across the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – and, hope campaigners, the country as a whole.
In addition to recommending further pill testing in the ACT, a report by Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) – which oversaw the Groovin the Moo (GTM) trial – says the success of the pilot scheme shows that pill testing could, and should, be introduced “as a harm-reduction service across Australia”.
“The pilot demonstrated that such an intervention is possible, and that people are willing to use the service, despite the limitations arising from the tight timelines, inauspicious physical infrastructure and the lack of dissemination strategies on site during the festival,” it reads.
“The development of a uniquely Australian pill-testing service model that involves peers, health professionals and law-enforcement officials working together to reduce harm among drug users needs to be prioritised and supported by all Australian governments.”
“As the first trial to be conducted in Australia, I know that other jurisdictions will be looking on with interest”
A total of 129 people used the STA-SAFE facility, with analysis turning up “a range of substances, ranging from lactose to high-purity MDMA, cocaine and ketamine”, as well as “one dangerous substance that has led to hospitalisations in New Zealand and deaths in the US”.
Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, one of the select number of UK festivals where front-of-house pill testing is offered, told IQ in 2017 drug testing is a “no-brainer”, as around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content. At Secret Garden Party 2017, meanwhile, in addition to high-strength MDMA, drug tests discovered ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA.
ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris, who backed the GTM pilot, comments: “The trial was a success and had shown there was a demand for the service. This will assist to better understand how pill testing may help reduce the harms of illicit drug use at festivals and will inform next steps and future drug policy.
“As the first trial to be conducted in Australia, I know that other jurisdictions will be looking on with interest to see the results of the evaluation. We look forward to releasing the evaluation once complete.”
As GTM mulls legality, researcher says pill testing could save lives
On-site festival pill testing, of the kind common in Austria, the Netherlands and, most recently, Britain, could reduce the harm caused by drug use and potentially save festivalgoers’ lives, according to major new review of drug policy out of Australia.
The publication of ‘“Worth the test?” Pragmatism, pill testing and drug policy in Australia’, published in the Harm Reduction Journal today and shared under embargo with IQ, comes as Cattleyard Promotions – the promoter behind Groovin the Moo, one of Australia’s biggest music festivals – weighs up whether to introduce pill testing at the 2018 events, in what would be the first full-scale trial down under.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a potential trial at the Canberra festival, which takes place on 29 April, has the backing of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government and police force, but promoters remain concerned over legal issues – despite pill-testing consortium Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) offering legal indemnity to Cattleyard if it allows drug testing.
A spokeswoman for Cattleyard says the promoter needs clarification on who is legally liable for the trial. “As pill testing has never been trialled before in Australia, the decision to implement it is not solely ours, as there are multiple stakeholders involved in undertaking the exercise,” she says.
“Some of the complexities that we are working through involve clarification around patron protection and legal ramifications for those who participate. We are also working through guidelines relating to insurances and liability.”
Two teenagers, including a 15-year-old girl, overdosed on drugs at Groovin the Moo 2016.
“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality”
In ‘Worth the test?’, Andrew Groves of Deakin University in Victoria examines evidence in support of pill testing to reduce fatalities caused by party drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, at festivals, clubs and raves. He compares Australia’s “inadequate” current approach, which centres on prevention, with attitudes in other countries, such as Portugal, Austria and the Netherlands, where the focus is on harm reduction.
Dr Groves reveals that Austrian initiative chEckiT has seen two-thirds of users binning their drugs when they discovered their content, while “a similar project in the Netherlands found that pill testing did not increase the use of party drugs, which is often perceived as a risk of such initiatives”.
“Although considered radical at the time, these measures have been effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, and problems for drug users and the wider community,” says Dr Groves. “The examples evaluated in this study support the idea that party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing, rather than criminal justice responses.”
In the UK, meanwhile, pill-testing charity The Loop is already working with a number of festivals, including Kendal Calling and Boomtown Fair, and recently called for the introduction of similar ‘drug-testing hubs’ in city centres as a means of stemming a rise in drug-related deaths.
“The most surprising finding of our research is that the evidence has clearly identified the inadequacy of existing punitive, zero-tolerance strategies across several countries,” continues Dr Groves, “and yet such policies often remain embedded in government legislative action. While we still need further evaluation of how best to implement pill testing and other harm reduction initiatives, the evidence suggests that they are useful and there is widespread support from the community and practitioners in the field.
“The debate must be about harm, rather than criminality.”
“Party-drug use requires pragmatic, evidence-based initiatives, such as pill testing”
Jon Drape of festival production outfit Ground Control told IQ in 2016 that around 25% of those who tested their drugs with the Loop at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party opted to bin them after discovering their content. There were 80 “substances of concern” discovered at SGP 2016, including extremely high-strength ecstasy, ‘ketamine’ that was actually an antimalarial and ammonium sulphate – used as a soil fertiliser and insecticide – sold as MDMA, he explained.
Previous attempts to get pill testing off the ground in Australia have been unsuccessful. While harm-reduction activist Will Tregoning said in August 2016 there would be pill testing at a festival in Australia in 2017, the festival in question – Spilt Milk – pulled out with six weeks to go, citing “insufficient” documentation from STA-SAFE.
ACT health minister Meegan Fitzharris said the Canberra government is doing “everything [it] can to ensure pill testing goes ahead at Groovin the Moo”. “The ACT government is being proactive and working with stakeholders to address any questions or concerns so we can see this happen,” she adds, “and I hope we have a final outcome soon.”
Dr Groves stresses that although pill testing cannot eliminate the harms of drug use, and cannot be used as a stand-alone solution, it could be a vital part of wider harm reduction strategy. “We are calling for further collaboration between law enforcement and healthcare providers to ensure that they take appropriate action to reduce the harm caused by drugs,” he concludes. “It is important to focus on prevention, public awareness campaigns and education to shift cultural attitudes, so that use of party drugs is identified as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.”
Royal Blood, Public Service Broadcasting, Alex Lahey, Duke Dumont, Lady Leshurr, Portugal the Man, Sampa the Great and Claptone are among the performers at Groovin the Moo 2018, which kicks off in Wayville, South Australia, on 27 April and wraps up in Bunbury on 12 May.
Time to Test: The Loop to bring drug testing to city centres
The Loop, the charity behind the pill-testing services at several UK music festivals, has called for the introduction of ‘regional drug-testing hubs’ in British cities to stem the alarming rise in the number of drug-related deaths.
Night Lives: Reducing Drug-Related Harms in the Night-Time Economy, a new report by the Loop, Volteface, Durham University and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, highlights the urgent need to reduce the harms associated with club drug use – revealing that though drug usage rates have remained broadly consistent, hospital admissions have spiked sharply, with drug-related deaths due to ecstasy and cocaine at their highest since records began.
It also recommends the adoption of a series of “bold yet practical initiatives” to combat the issue, including:
- Drug safety testing services in night-time districts
- An independent information service to reduce drug-related harm
- Drugs awareness training for night-time staff
- The adoption of the UK festival drug policy of the ‘3 Ps’ – prevent, pursue, protect – in licensed venues
Report co-author Dr Henry Fisher, health and science policy director at Volteface, comments: “While the UK’s drug market has rapidly evolved in recent years, measures taken to address harms have failed to keep pace and, as a result, our young people, public services and much-loved venues are bearing the brunt of this failure. Everyone we spoke to for the report agrees more needs to be done to reduce drug harms.
“This report provides innovative solutions to tackle them, such as drug safety testing services. It is now up to councils, clubs and police to work together to implement them.”
“Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric”
The Loop’s first festival partner was Secret Garden Party, in 2016, with Kendal Calling following shortly after. It also offered front-of-house testing at Boomtown Fair in 2017, and the organisation says it will work with “an increased number of UK festivals this summer”.
To help fund the launch of the scheme, along with the “growing demand” for its services at festivals, the Loop has launched a crowdfunding campaign, Time to Test, which aims to raise £50,000 by 15 June.
“Night-time venues are at the centre of British music culture, making our cities exciting and vibrant places to live while contributing over £66 billion to the UK economy,” says Jeff Smith MP, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. “Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric around drugs and out-dated licensing laws. This report offers credible and tested solutions to help protect people attending events.
“I hope that venues, local authorities and the government will work together to make these recommendations a reality.”
To donate to the Time to Test campaign, visit crowd.science/campaigns/time-to-test.