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  • Written by Monica Barratt, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University

A NSW Coronial Inquest investigating a series of drug-related deaths at Australian music festivals has heard evidence of festival goers taking multiple concurrent doses of MDMA to avoid police detection and not receiving adequate medical attention.

But a lack of knowledge about the drug use patterns and demographic profile of festival goers has stymied capacity to develop evidence-informed policy responses.

Yesterday we published two data reports to inform the inquest and shed light on these patterns. Both reports are based on data from more than 5,000 Australian festival goers who completed the Global Drug Survey from late 2018.

It suggests common assumptions about Australian festival goers and the risks they take may be wrong.

Read more: Testing festival goers' pills isn't the only way to reduce overdoses. Here's what else works

Who goes to music festivals and what drugs do festival goers take?

Most Australian music festival attendees we sampled were young (with a mean age of 22.4), male (55%), heterosexual (76%) and white (87%).

They were well-educated and most were employed (85.6%). Very few reported having a criminal conviction (6%).

And while it’s often assumed that people going to festivals are “hardcore” or regular attendees, almost half (49.6%) reported going to only one or two festivals a year.

The most common drug they took, unsurprisingly, was alcohol. Of the illicit substances, the most commonly used were MDMA, cannabis and cocaine.

We asked about drug use in all settings, not just festivals, and not just on the day of the festival.

While nearly half (44%) reported drinking alcohol weekly or more often, 64% typically drank at least five standard drinks.

Festival goers who used MDMA typically reported use ten times in the last 12 months. Those who used cocaine typically did so five times in the last 12 months.

Although MDMA use is the focus of the NSW Coronial Inquest, and public debates about festival safety, our data show that alcohol remains the biggest contributor to drug-related harm among festival goers.

Festival goers who reported using MDMA typically took the drug ten times in the past year. Krists Luhaers

Festival goers’ experiences with policing

Our analysis showed most festival goers (75%) reported they encountered police in relation to their drug use in the last 12 months. Some 69% reported drug dog encounters at festivals.

This is a concern because encounters with drug detection dogs are often traumatic and can lead to more harmful practices, such as taking multiple doses to avoid detection.

Read more: Why drug-detection dogs are sniffing up the wrong tree

NSW festival goers were 1.3 times more likely to report encounters with drug detection dogs than those from other states (79% versus 62%). This is notable, given our earlier analysis showed encounters with drug detection dogs are already seven times higher in Australia than in New Zealand.

Who seeks medical treatment?

Few festival goers we sampled sought medical attention. Just 280 respondents (6%) reported seeking medical help after alcohol or other drug use at least once in the last 12 months. We cannot tell from these data where these young people were located when they sought medical help, whether at a festival or in the community.

Young women aged 16 to 20 years were the most likely to report seeking medical help after drinking alcohol or taking other drugs (8.7%), followed by young men in the same age group (7.3%). Just 4.9% of men aged 21 and over and 5.2% of women in the same age group reported seeking help.

Festival goers who had problems with alcohol were more likely to seek help (4.3% of users) than those who were struggling after using other drugs including MDMA (2.5%), LSD (1.48%), cannabis (0.96%) and cocaine (0.67%).

Read more: How does MDMA kill?

Festival goers seeking help for alcohol consumption typically drank 15 standard alcoholic drinks.

The most commonly mentioned symptoms here were nausea or vomiting (45%), accident or trauma (40%) or passing out (37%). Some 65% reported being admitted to hospital.

Those seeking help after taking MDMA typically consumed three pills or 0.4g during the session. The majority (56%) reported taking a larger than usual dose of MDMA on that occasion.

Just 28% reported starting the session with a smaller “test dose” of MDMA.

Festival goers commonly mixed alcohol with other drugs. Marvin Meyer

Most (81%) reported combining MDMA with alcohol and or other illegal drugs. And most of those who drank alcohol with MDMA said they were “already drunk” before taking the MDMA.

The most common symptoms they experienced were confusion (40%), anxiety and panic (40%) and very low mood in the days afterwards (40%). Almost half (48%) reported being admitted to hospital.

What does this data tell us?

Despite the understandable focus on the harms from illicit drugs, most illicit drug use among Australian festival attendees appears to be occasional and isn’t problematic.

Nevertheless, there is a small but notable group of young people who experience higher rates of drug-related harms.

To reduce these harms, we should expand access to peer education services, such as those provided by the DanceWize team. DanceWize provides credible information about safer partying. It delivers harm-reduction services, including crowd care services (water, sunscreen and information). It also hosts a safe space for festival goers.

We should also expand trials of on-site drug checking services at festivals and outside these settings (for example, drop-in services at urban centres). Drug checking (or pill testing) services invite members of the public to anonymously submit drug samples for forensic analysis and then provide individualised feedback of results and counselling as appropriate.

Read more: Here's why doctors are backing pill testing at music festivals across Australia

Given their high rates of policing, particularly with drug detection dogs, Australian festival goers may be reluctant to seek medical advice or support if they are afraid of being detected in possession of drugs.

Reducing the use of drug detection dogs at festivals, as well as expanding non-criminal alternatives for personal use and possession offences, should be prioritised to reset the balance between public health and public safety.

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