Fact Check: Would shortening the length of Rainbow Serpent Festival reduce harm?

This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.

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Hannah Francis from The Age wrote a piece entitled “Police want to cut length of Rainbow Serpent Festival following death of 22-year-old”. How would a shorter festival have prevented this tragedy and might doing so actually increase harm?

Rainbow Serpent Festival’s (RSFs) gates opened for the 20_year celebration at midday on Thursday the 26th of January 2017. Opening midday on the Thursday of Australia Day weekend has been the festival’s format for years. Yet The Age author incorrectly wrote that it “ran for one day longer than usual this year”. Having music play on the Thursday, from 5pm-midnight, was a first though. Conversely, the festival’s entertainment schedule has been cut short over the past two years to encourage people to rest earlier on Monday night to mitigate fatigue among Tuesday’s exiting patrons, and this is an example of the organisers’ ongoing commitment to their impaired driving initiative.

By turning off the music earlier, it gives patrons more time to recover before safely driving home.

Supt. Andrew Allen was quoted in the Victoria Police media statement released 31 January: “Every year more and more police resources are required at this extraordinarily high-risk event”. While Hannah Francis‘s article captured the sentiment of the original police statement, she misquoted the statement. For example: “…Allen said the festival posed ‘extreme risks’ to other road users”. I paid to gain access to Victoria Police’s Corporate Statistics regarding the roadside operation targeting RSF in 2016:

  • Between 25-27 January 2016, at Lexton and Beaufort, police conducted 403 preliminary oral fluid tests (using Pathtec Drug Swipe II Twin, to test for traces of meth/amphetamine and THC)
  • 40 drivers gave a preliminary positive result at the roadside (they were not “arrested”). It then takes about a month to get the lab-confirmed results.
  • 34 drivers were confirmed positive for traces of those prescribed substances in their saliva after a secondary sample was sent to the laboratory.

That means that in 2016 9.92% of people who were drug tested after they left RSF tested positive for traces of the proscribed substances in the bodily fluids at the roadside, while 8.44% were confirmed positive and charged accordingly. And that means there were 6 (15%) false positive tests.

The lab-confirmed results for RSF 2017 are not yet available for purchase from Corporate Statistics, but let’s assume all 17+ preliminary positive results are confirmed positive. The police roadside operation ran for an additional day-and-a-half compared to 2016 (Sunday 29 January-Thursday 2 February), so it’s also fair to assume they conducted at least the same number of drug tests this year as last. This would mean that 4.22% of drivers who were drug tested leaving RSF produced a preliminary positive result. This is a significantly lower rate of positive results than the 14.29% rate of positive tests across the state over Easter weekend and up to one third in some suburbs on AFL final weekend in 2016. Clearly the Easter and Grandfinal weekends generate far more harm and are more newsworthy.

But more importantly, shortening the festival could lead to increased rates of people caught drug driving. And while in Victoria it is a summary offence to have “any concentration” of methylamphetamine, MDMA, or THC in one’s blood or oral fluid (See, Road Safety Act 1986, S 49(1)(bb)  and the applicable statutory definitions), neither the law nor the technology used to enforce it tests for impairment. Shortening the festival could lead to increased people driving impaired. In turn, this could actually contribute to deaths rather than reduce the chance of deaths and is in direct contradiction with the RSFs impaired driving initiative.

Compounding the issue is what might be described as journalistic apathy. Police media statements are often assumed to be objective sources of information that the media simply accept as fact. But police media statements too can be politically-loaded. The user-pays policing system provides little incentive for police to downplay the necessity of their services at any particular event. Further, as one of the largest agencies in the executive branch of government, Victoria Police aren’t immune to human administration errors and miscommunications either, which may explain the frequent and obvious anomalies when roadside operation statistics are quoted.

Further, in RSF’s media release on the 2 February, Tim Harvey wrote “Last year one in 20 drivers outside Rainbow tested positive compared to the annual state average of one in 15 and while we believe one positive test is too many, it’s been made abundantly clear that music festivals are just easy headlines for senior police officers with political agendas”. Hannah Francis wrote “Mr Harvey played down the link between the festival and drug driving, saying one in eight drivers testing positive was ‘a fantastic result when compared to the Victorian community in general”. Compared is the only word of more than one syllable The Age accurately quoted Mr Harvey as saying.

The Police media statement claiming RSF poses an “extraordinarily high-risk” is at odds with police feedback onsite and the superlative effort placed on safety during the year-round planning process. RSF undergoes the local government’s permitting process. As such, emergency management stakeholders, including Victoria Police, advise the festival on the necessary and most prudent safety measures required. The organisers comply, and during the event an emergency management HQ, including a Victoria Police compound, runs 24/7. Some of such documentation is available through the Pyrenees Shire’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request process. The organisers of RSF made an extraordinary effort to minimize harm at this year’s event.

Two reports of sexual assault at RSF were made to police. The Age acknowledged in its closing paragraph that RSF introduced ‘The Nest’  in 2017, an inclusive safe space initiative with sexual assault counsellors and psychologists to respond to “alleged assaults”. No other festival in Australia has such a comprehensive initiative to address gender-based violence (GBV) or to educate the community on consent. Victoria’s Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) and all reputable research sources globally on the prevalence of sexual assault (ABS, WHO, ACSSA, OSW, AIC) stress that sexual assault is highly prevalent and that approximately 95% of sexual assaults go unreported, and only 10% of the 5% reported result in conviction. The Australian Bureau of statistics notes, “there were 21,380 victim s of sexual assault recorded by police in 2015 ”. Therefore, all evidence suggests 467,600 people were sexually assaulted in Australia in 2015. An increase in the rate of sexual assault reports to police does not mean sexual assaults are more common. Rather, it suggests the victim-survivors of sexual assault have more confidence in the criminal justice system and feel empowered to make a report. Just consider the ongoing findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But has anyone suggested religious organisations pose an extreme safety risk?

For 20 years, increasing numbers of people have attended the music, arts, and community gathering in Lexton, with some 20,000 attending over the past few years. In 2017, the community grieved for the third life lost in RSF’s history: nearly 10 years ago an attendee died from an asthma attack; in 2012 Daniel Buccianti died from drug-related causes. This year a 22-year-old man died, and while the coroner’s report is pending, all other reports suggest he drank a bottle of “amyl nitrate”, as incorrectly noted in by Hannah Francis in The Age, among numerous other sources – amyl nitrite or ‘poppers’ is commonly misrepresented as amyl nitrate, but these are different substances. Following these reports, Associate Professor David Caldicott provided some harm reduction when using poppers on AOD Media Watch. Shortening the event is extremely unlikely to have prevented this tragedy.

Rather, it would seem from this analysis that shortening the event could actually increase harm. The veracity of the reporting by Hannah Francis is questionable. I have shown the significant efforts made by RSF organisers to reduce harm, but this was not reported in The Age. We at AOD Media Watch would encourage Hannah to engage with us to improve the objectivity and evidence-base for future reporting.

Stephanie Tzanetis, Dancewize coordinator, Harm Reduction Victoria

DMT is becoming more popular in Australia (www.news.com.au)

This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.

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This story, written by Olivia Lambert, not only contains significant misinformation, she cites no evidence to indicate that there has even been an increase in the use of this drug in Australia despite a headline suggesting that there has. In fact, her key expert is quoted as saying that “It’s pretty rare at the moment”. My research has shown that such irresponsible reporting is actually likely to lead people who had not heard of this drug to become curious and try it. Indeed, her by-line: ” It’s incredibly euphoric and your mind loses all sense of reality”, certainly makes the drug sound appealing. In this instance, perhaps such curious use of the drug is not too concerning given that DMT is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter produced in the brain and has low toxicity; however, the story proposes that it is increasingly being synthetically manufactured citing only the NSW Drug Info website. My experience is that DMT is being extracted naturally from the local flora as it is abundant in the Australian wattle tree and this process is far cheaper and easier than synthetic manufacture. There is no reason to believe that synthetic DMT is widely available within Australia.

Lambert’s key expert, Mr Leibie, is also questionable as he runs a drug testing lab and has a vested interest in creating alarm within the community. Indeed, a number of statements that Lambert cites from Leibie are simply false. For example, he is paraphrased as stating that “DMT was a tryptamine, a new class of psychoactive substances”. The human neurotransmitter serotonin, in addition to DMT, are all tryptamines. They are hardly new. Furthermore, the use of DMT has occurred within Western society since the 1960’s and by indigenous South Americans for 1000s of years.

It would appear that the personal experience of the drug being used in a shamanic context by Melbourne based IT consultant Grant Eaton has been lifted from his Facebook post, presumably without his consent.

DMT is also not a narcotic drug, as stated by Lambert in the article, yet I suspect that this term, like reference to potential “synthetic” variants of DMT, has been intentionally used by Lambert to incite fear within the community. Such reporting is irresponsible not only because it perpetuates misinformation about drugs and prevents constructive conversations about drug policy, but as noted the evidence indicates that such reporting can actually both create and fuel an epidemic.

Dr Stephen Bright, Psychologist

Rainbow Festival was Marred by Drugs and Violence – Really?!?

This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.

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Research shows that the media report more stories about illicit drugs than alcohol, and that the stories about drugs are more negative than those about alcohol. This is demonstrated in an article in the Herald Sun by Wes Hosking entitled “Police question drug and violence marred Rainbow Serpent Festival’s future”. In this and other media coverage of the festival, Inspector Bruce Thomas cites what appear to be alarming statistics. Specifically, he says that there were allegedly three sexual assaults and four physical assaults. But these statistics need to be put into context. There were over 20,000 attendees at the festival. Imagine a gathering of 20,000 people and the amount of alcohol-related incidents that might occur on Australia Day. And this is just one day. The Rainbow Serpent Festival runs for almost 6 days, including Australia Day!

As board members of Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine, we volunteered at the recent Rainbow Serpent Festival with DanceWize to deliver harm reduction strategies to festival goers, including providing a safe space for people who were feeling distressed to process their drug-induced experience. Having personally spoken to the police on-site, they stated to us that they thought the crowd was well behaved and noted that they might not be so well behaved if alcohol was attendees’ primary drug of choice. Rather, most people we saw were consuming Cannabis, LSD and MDMA.

So what does the evidence say about whether alcohol or other drugs is more likely to lead to violence?

Most violence linked to alcohol and other drugs in Australia is due to alcohol, with 26% of Australiansreporting they have been affected by alcohol-related violence compared with 3.1% who reported being affected by violence related to illicit drugs.

Despite rates of alcohol consumption remaining relatively stable in Australia between 2003 and 2013, there was an 85% increase in alcohol-related family violence over the same time period. While some drugs such as methamphetamine (“ice”) have been implicated in a recent royal commission with an increase family violence, the degree to which it plays a role is not clear.

How does this happen?

In understanding how alcohol and other drugs mediate violence, we need to consider how they work in the body.

As people drink alcohol, they experience reduced functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, a part that plays an important role in how people regulate behaviour and make decisions. When people drink, they tend to make poor decisions and are more likely to react emotionally to situations in which they might normally respond with more reason and reflection. When people drink they are also less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions.

MDMA (“ecstasy”) works in a different way. It leads to a release of serotonin in the brain so people tend to become empathetic towards others and emotionally open. So, MDMA is rarely associated with violence. That’s the case unless people take it with other drugs such as alcohol or stimulants, or they take what they think is ecstasy but really is a new or otherwise harmful drug. Ecstasy might contain drugs other than MDMA – many of which can cause significant harm. As previously reported on AOD Media Watch, this was recently seen both on the Gold Coast and in Melbourne, when people unintentionally consumed Ecstasy that contained drugs other than MDMA, and led to a number of medical emergencies and some deaths. This has led to many researchers to call for pill testing to be implemented in Australia.

LSD (“acid”) is a psychedelic drug that binds to certain serotonin receptors in the brain. In doing so, LSD can lead to significant changes in consciousness and perception that are therapeutic in clinical settings. But people can become overwhelmed by the changes in perception caused by LSD at festivals, leading some people to become distressed and occasionally unaware of their actions. There are no studies showing a clear link between the use of LSD and violence.

Anecdotally, we have rarely seen people become violent as a result of their distress after taking LSD at festivals. However, as with ecstasy, there is no quality control of the illicit drug market in Australia and some people have had violent reactions or self-harmed as a result of unintentionally consuming NBOMe drugs sold as LSD.

So, it would appear alcohol is far more likely to be associated with violence than MDMA or LSD.

Widespread use of alcohol

A key factor in this situation, of course, is that alcohol is arguably the most widely accepted social tonic in western society. The most recent data show that about 80% of Australians aged over 14 drank alcohol in the past year, with 6.5% drinking it daily.

While most people consider its risks to both personal health and community safety manageable,research suggests its widespread use makes it the most harmful drug due to the impact it has on others in terms of violence.

But most illicit drugs are recent arrivals in western society and have been subject to widespread prohibition rather than regulation. So, it is hardly surprising that fewer people use them. The most recent data show that about 7.2% of Australians aged over 14 consumed “ecstasy” in the past 12 months, 2.1% had used methamphetamine and 1.3% had used a psychedelic drug, such as LSD, in the past 12 months.

What we’d like to see

Ultimately, we need more research to confirm, despite the acknowledged risk of other harms, that drugs like MDMA and LSD have a low potential for causing violence compared with alcohol.

The media should be more responsible in how they report on alcohol and other drugs, particularly given the consistently high rates of alcohol-related violence compared to violence linked with other drugs.

People who use illicit drugs are also a minority and it is important the media does not further marginalise this group by using stigmatising language. Clearly Rainbow Serpent Festival was not marred by violence, though by associating violence with drugs, stigma towards people who use drugs is perpetuated.

Without such changes in media reporting there will continue to be limited opportunities to discuss implementing evidence-based drug policy. Rather, Australia will continue to fall behind other western nations in implementing harm reduction measures such as pill testing.

Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University & Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University

Dr Martin Williams, President of Psychedelic Research In Science & Medicine

This article was adapted from a piece published on The Conversation. Read the original article.