Music festival deaths renew drug-policy debate

Drugs seized by police during the Defqon 1 dance festival at the Sydney International Regatta Centre in Penrith, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, on Sept 15, 2018.
Drugs seized by police during the Defqon 1 dance festival at the Sydney International Regatta Centre in Penrith, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, on Sept 15, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY • Two people died of suspected drug overdose while 700 others sought medical attention.

That is not music to the ears of Australian authorities who have vowed to shut down music festival Defqon.1 after the incidents took place over the weekend in Sydney.

The threat renews a debate about drug policy in Australia, with supporters of liberalisation - and music - arguing that cancelling events is needlessly heavy-handed.

After each death - including those at the Stereosonic music festival in Adelaide in 2015 and the Rainbow Serpent festival in South Australia last year - authorities threatened to axe the events, saying the festivals' culture of permissiveness had contributed to overdoses.

"This is an unsafe event and I'll be doing everything I can to make sure it never happens again," Ms Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, said on Sunday after a 23-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman died at Defqon.1.

But others said "zero-tolerance" policies led to secret drug use.

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said: "The premier has zero tolerance to drugs. I prefer to have zero tolerance to preventable deaths of young people."

Ms Berejiklian had said there was no such thing as safe drug use.

While shutting down the festival may score political points, it is unlikely to deter people from taking illicit drugs, said Professor Steve Allsop of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.

"I can't imagine any government that would be banning all music events, all nightlife and entertainment," he added.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2018, with the headline 'Music festival deaths renew drug-policy debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe