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Study reveals police presence at festivals leads to ‘panic overdoses’

According to a new study, people who have a fear of police are more likely to overdose at music festivals

With festival season (hopefully) on its way back this summer, and after two years of corona cancellations and back-to-back lockdowns, it’s no question that people will want to make the most of it. According to a new study, however, fear of police may have dangerous consequences for festival drug users. 

After surveying festivalgoers at six major music festivals in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, researchers led by St Vincent’s Clinical School at the University of NSW determined that police presence at festivals leads some people to “panic overdose” after consuming all drugs at once to avoid being caught. 

Survey participants were anonymously asked about their intended drug use for that day, and higher risk drug behaviours, such as ‘preloading’ (taking all of their drugs before entering the event), ‘double-dropping’ (taking two or more doses of MDMA at once), illicit drug use, and mixing stimulants. They were also asked whether police or police dog presence impacted their drug-related behaviours and decisions.

The results found a high correlation between fear of police and preloading drugs, as people who said that police presence influences their decisions to take drugs were more than twice as likely to take all drugs before entering festivals. 

“This study heightens existing concerns regarding unintended harmful consequences of the policing of drug use at festivals,” the study concludes, suggesting that an increased police power in live music spaces is more concerning than protective.

“If the police are looking to reduce drug-related harm they are better off not being inside festivals using drug sniffing dogs or searching attendants, which we know actually increases harm,” said André Gomes, content coordinator at Release – the UK’s national centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws. “Providing drug-testing services (and) sharing drug harm-reduction advice (such as taking quarter of a regular dose and not mixing with other drugs, particularly alcohol) are much more effective at reducing drug-related harms than the presence of law enforcement.”

He continues: “Police presence clashes with the idea of festivals and, honestly, fun. Police are known to shut down parties and arrest attendants for possession or distribution of drugs. Seeing as festivals or parties are typical drug-using locations, it's normal that people feel uncomfortable around them, particularly if they risk being arrested. Most people who use drugs are therefore suspicious of their intent, and will not seek out their help even in medical emergencies. Medical or harm reduction services are much better equipped to deal with any drug-related harms.”

In order to improve festival safety, Gomes says that festival organisers should ensure that drug testing services are available on site, to facilitate the distribution of harm reduction materials and provide warnings about bad batches. He continues: “Trained welfare officers at festivals can also be a good point of contact between the festival organisers and anyone having a bad drug-related experience. Drug related harm can be mitigated without any police presence necessary.”

In the meantime, check out our guide on how to sesh safely here.