Criminal Law

By Alexis Currier


When milk turns sour; consequences of drug taking at festivals

Spilt Milk 2019 will be held in Canberra on 23 November 2019, only 2 weeks after the damming report released by NSW Deputy State Coroner Grahame following an inquest in the deaths of six patrons across various music festivals in NSW. The findings released by the Coroner, along with comments made to the media, highlight the distain for the current system in NSW surrounding the punitive approach of reprimanding of those engaging in drug use at festivals. The following will discuss the recommendations made by Deputy State Coroner Grahame and discuss the difference in laws and approaches in the ACT relevant to harm minimisation.

Coroners Recommendations

When reading the Coroner’s recommendations, one thing immediately struck me. The system in NSW for addressing drug use at festivals is not acting to prevent harm, but rather focusing on punishment. The Coroner has described the current approach as unacceptable, and condemned the approach taken by the NSW Government and NSW Police.

One of the main recommendations made by the Coroner, highlighted through the body of the report, is the use of sniffer dogs at music festivals in New South Wales. The use of sniffer dogs has been linked to patrons participating in risky conduct, such as:

  • Consuming all of their drugs upon sight of the dogs (panic approach)
  • Consuming all of their drugs prior to arriving (preloading)
  • Transporting their drugs past operations via bodily cavities
  • Buying drugs from unknown suppliers’ inside the festival
  • Carrying or consuming different drugs that are thought to be less detectible. [1]

The Coroner found that there were overwhelming grounds for concerns about the practice of using drug dogs at festivals. The practices outlined above, due to the presence of sniffer dogs, can be linked to at least one of the deaths investigated at the Coronial Inquest. The accuracy of sniffer dog detection is also questionable, with 2018-19 figures supplied demonstrating that after a positive indication from a sniffer dog, drugs were only found in 23.8% of cases.[2]

One area in which the Coroner made strong recommendations was in relation to drug testing on and offsite music festivals. The systems in the ACT and overseas were closely examined by the Coroner, who made recommendations to various stakeholders to implement harm minimisation strategies for the coming 2019-20 summer festival season, which include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Pill testing on site at music festivals;
  2. Permanent drug testing facilities within the community;
  3. Designated ‘chill out’ zones within festivals;
  4. Encouraging patrons to participate in activities that encourage ‘chilling out’;
  5. Monitoring of ambient temperatures at festivals;
  6. Provision of free cold-water facilities. [3]

 Approach to drug use at festivals in the ACT

The ACT was used by Deputy State Coroner Grahame to juxtapose the current practices in NSW. As most Canberrans would be aware, the ACT has a completely different approach and is focusing heavily on different avenues of harm minimisation. At Spilt Milk 2019, the following examples of harm minimisation will be in place:

  1. Free water stations, with patrons able to BYO water bottles (that aren’t metal or glass);
  2. Free sunscreen;
  3. Ability for patrons to BYO food;
  4. Places for patrons to ‘chill out’;
  5. The ‘Good Vibes Hotline’, allowing patrons to report any negative behaviour, allowing security and festival staff to attend and make a discreet intervention;
  6. And most importantly, First Aid facilities at multiple locations across the festival. [4]

Pill testing in the ACT still remains to be a controversial topic but can be attributed to a significant level of harm minimisation. At Groovin in the Moo this year, seven participants in the pill testing discarded their pills when they were told their pills contained the lethal substance N-ethyl pentylone, which has been linked to multiple overdoses overseas[5]. As Spilt Milk takes place in Commonwealth Park, being Commonwealth land controlled by the National Capital Authority (NCA), pill testing will not take place. The NCA has outlined that there is no legal framework in place for pill testing and has raised concerns that the process of testing pills may imply that illicit substances are safe.[6]

Even though harm minimisation is at the forefront in the ACT, this is not to say that those engaging in illegal conduct will not be reprimanded. Police will be monitoring the crowds, and there will likely be undercover police in the crowd.


The use of illicit drugs is not a problem that will go away with a ‘Just say no’ approach – Drugs are not a new phenomenon.  The current approach taken by the ACT Government and ACT Policing is admirable, given the approach taken just across the border. Beyond physical harm, any conviction of a drug offence (no matter how minor) can have a profound effect on a young person’s life. It is important to weigh up the outcomes, therefore, when undertaking policing of drugs. For majority of the drug offences committed as festivals being minor (e.g. low-level possession for personal use), the focus on reprimanding these people does not solve the root problem.[7] Resources should not be focussed here, but rather on the higher-level drug offenders, being the suppliers and dealers and those committing social disorder offences as festivals.

At the end of the day, festivals are designed to be fun events, and someone getting hurt or dying due to consumption of drugs should not be the outcome. Use of illicit drugs is a health issue, it should not be a legal issue.  Harm minimisation strategies are the way forward for addressing the issue of the use of illicit drugs and ensuring any use is safe.  With the ACT being used as an example jurisdiction shows that we are making promising steps forward in attitudes toward recreational drug use.

If you find yourself charged with any drug offences, contact the team at Aulich Criminal Law as soon as possible on (02) 6279 4222.


[1] Magistrate Harriet Grahame, Deputy State Coroner, ‘Inquest into the death of six patrons of NSW music festivals, Hoang Nathan Tran, Diana Nguyen, Joseph Pham, Callum Brosnan, Joshua Tam, Alexandra Ross-King’ (Coronial Inquest Findings) 8 November 2019, 100.

[2] Ibid at 102.

[3] Ibid at 135-140.

[4] ‘Spilt Milk Survival Guide’, Spilt Milk, (Website, No date) <>.

[5] Andrew Brown, ‘Pill testing trial at Canberra Groovin The Moo festival finds deadly drugs’, The Canberra Times, (Website, 26 August 2019) <>.

[6] Elise Scott and Jordan Hayne, ‘Pill testing could be held outside Spilt Milk festival, ACT Government says’, ABC News, (Website, 19 September 2019) <>.

[7] Angus Thompson, ‘”Faces of these young people will remain with me”: Coroner urges sweeping changes on drugs’, The Sydney Morning Herald, (Website, 8 November 2019) <>.