OP-ED: Defqon, drug testing, and do the police actually give a shit about public safety?

It's time to rethink the problem with Defqon.

Source: Defqon1au Instagram

Last Saturday, I was amongst 30,000 ravers who attended the now notorious Defqon1 hardstyle music festival. The day managed to live up to the festival’s reputation for intensity, sparing no costs in pushing the boundaries of ostentatious theatricality and sensory overload. However, beneath the extravagance of the festival, the Defqon community has been grappling with controversies surrounding drug-related deaths over the past several years.

Tragically, people die at festivals all the time. But this year’s Defqon1 was particularly lethal, with two dead, two critically ill and a further 700 attendees reported to have sought medical attention. By some accounts, this would explain the heavy and conspicuous police presence at every level of the event. Although, if saner heads were to prevail, one might ask how a police force, trained in the provision of violence and crowd control, not first aid and medical safety, are qualified to respond to the high volume of medical incidents at the festival.

Over the past decade and a half, the police have firmly embedded themselves as a permanent fixture at most Australian music festivals. Their objectives are fairly transparent: to detect and apprehend individuals in the possession of drugs and to manage ‘antisocial’ behaviour.

The particular contempt with which the police have dedicated to this task has been on open display. Arbitrary violations of individual privacies and freedoms as well as a litany of social media posts alleging that police discriminatorily profile individuals raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of these tactics.

Neither do these tactics achieve the ‘deterring’ effects that they claim, according to the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Out of 2000 surveyed anonymous festival goers, only 4% were completely deterred from taking drugs at festivals. If police presence has no statistical effect on deterring drug use, then the benefit of zealous policing on our recreational activities comes into question.

If I was being generous, I would say authorities can congratulate themselves on deterring at least a couple dozen individuals from taking illicit substances inside the festival. Instead, these people took them on the shuttle bus to the site or just beyond eyeshot of the police at the festival entrance.

If deterrence is the objective then the police were hugely successful at deterring people from seeking medical help. Many Defqon1 attendees complained on social media this year that overbearing police presence “scared” them away from approaching the medical tent. In light of the two drug-related deaths at this year’s festival, these complaints should not be taken lightly, especially if it is found the deceased was deterred from seeking help.

Adjacent to the medical tent in Defqon1 is a stall operated by testing company Blow Me First, which supplies pill testing kits to various festivals and events. The stall sold basic ‘surface’ testing kits designed to detect alcohol and drugs within one’s body. But here too, uniformed and plain clothed officers kept a scrutinising eye on revellers naïve enough to try to take control of their personal health and safety.

Having also worked at Defqon 1 as an event staff member since 2014, I came to acquire privileged information on the overt nature of police engagement with the festival. I recall, for instance, during a shift in the cloaking rooms in 2015, two officers guiding sniffer dogs through a pile of 100 or so attendee’s bags. Legally dubious at best, the dogs which searched property without the owner’s consent or presence, ultimately found nothing.

In 2016 I began to notice the prevalence of plain clothed ‘undercover’ officers at the festival, camouflaging into crowds to catch unsuspecting revellers ingesting drugs. This year’s festival, which I attended as a regular reveller, was perhaps the most heavily securitised Defqon I experienced. The entrance to the grounds was host to a staunch coalition of riot-squad police, conventional uniformed officers and event security. Walled in by enough security to stifle a popular uprising, attendees shuffled into the grounds in muted excitement. The nervous tension became palpable as a few officers interweaved dreaded sniffer dogs throughout the procession of ravers, picking off individuals to be strip searched, questioned and possibly apprehended.

That hardstyle events such as Defqon 1, often taking place at venues deep in the outer west of Sydney, are consistently among the most heavily securitised, reflects the historic class and racial biases of the police institution. This year, more than 180 police officers and 20 detectives were reported on-duty at Defqon 1. That’s significantly more than the presence at Splendour in the Grass this year, which boasted nearly twice the attendance and duration of Defqon.

As drug regulations tighten and police presence increases, only the most cunning and morally unscrupulous dealers survive, cutting their product with cheaper and dubious chemical substitutes to increase profit margins. Simultaneously, recreational users are left without access to the resources to take control of their safety. Now is the time to question the role of police at our festivals. With appropriate harm minimisation strategies and medical resources, drugs do not have to be the problem.