I was sent this paper by a professor at NYU who I hold in the highest regard. While local authorities all around the world continue to argue about the best way to “secure” festivals, from crime and medical harm, the Aussies have done some real work. Published in this month’s International Journal of Drug Policy, Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes, Vivienne Moxham-Halla, Alison Rittera, Don Weatherburnb, Robert MacCounc of the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney have made a fascinating discovery. One that, while novel, will seem obvious immediately once you understand what they proved. The core assumption they sought to evaluate the validity of seems almost common sense, yet has been at the core of the West’s strategy : Police can deter, discourage or prevent drug offending/consumption. Given that we’ve already spent $1.2 Billion in 2017 already to police and prohibit, you’d hope that the core tenet of “Police presence reduces drug offense” would be bullet-proof.
Over 4000 people took part in a Drug Policing Survey over a 5 month period. This survey asked takers (who had self-identified as regular festival/club attendees who consumed recreational drugs or had friends who did) to evaluate how certain types of police presence at clubs and festivals would cause them to change their drug taking tactics. As opposed to treating party people as some skittish, crack-addicted group that couldn’t be reasoned with, Dr. Hughes & her team depended on the festival/club attendees to evaluate scenarios where evading law enforcement was the goal. This might seem a little subversive to Americans, but even in cybersecurity, probing weaknesses using data from blackhats is worth its weight in gold. And this study was no exception.
Five different experimental vignettes were presented to the surveytakers. They were hypothetical scenarios that included an assortment of policing strategies: High Visibility Policing, Riot Policing, Collaborative Policing & Policing with Drug Detection Dogs, and a control scenario (No police presence). Essentially, how would your drug consumption or purchasing change if one of these police presence schema was used at the club or festival you attended. While any police presence led to a 4.6% reduction in overall illicit drug offending, it led to merely a reduction in people willing to carry drugs into an event or carry them on their person. Which makes sense. Ask any party person you know, they’ll probably regale you with tales of very minor substance use inside the club, maybe a few key bumps or lines in the bathroom. Very few people have the cajones to bring drugs into festivals or clubs that have big time security. They just assume they’ll purchase whatever they need inside the venue. And that’s exactly what the researchers found.
Given police presence, purchasing of drugs increased significantly within festival grounds. High Visibility Policing reduced overall drug offending, while Drug Detection dogs reduced drug possession the most, which makes sense. If you can see cops everywhere, you’re less likely to engage in risky shit. However, if you see drug dogs, you’re more likely to not carry, especially into the festival. And here’s the kicker. While you’re less likely to carry, you’re much more likely to buy and consume at the event.
This leads to all sorts of terrible shit, as people don’t test drugs they buy to consume immediately. Moreover, when you buy drugs from a dealer you’re likely to never have contact with again, because you’re not a regular customer, it’s that much more likely they’re going to sell you some bunk. If you’re a regular reader, you can probably guess why this concerns me. The idea that policing is not only ineffective, but also increasing the chance that drug consumers are going to take untested, is a significant departure from the “police just send drug use underground” talking point that we’ve been dealing with for years.
The truth is way more complicated of course. People do drugs in the safest way they’re able, exposing themselves to as little liability as they can while still achieving their ends. If that means buying LSD and taking it while they’re standing in line, they do that. If they prefer a drug that’s got a shorter duration, like MDMA or cocaine, some might be down to bring drugs in, but most are not willing to take that risk. That leads to the massive market opportunity that drug dealers at festivals & clubs exploit. This is simple market economics that most prohibitionists are unwilling to admit. Dealers, like life in Jurassic Park, find a way. Neatly tethered to the events of BPM, criminals will always find a way to ensure they profit from market demand. And in this case, our insatiable demand for drugs can’t even be stopped by the “North Korea with neon lighting” levels of policing that events like Electric Zoo have put forth. High definition cameras to capture buys, drug dogs and high visibility severe response policing can put a damper on drug possession or even perhaps trafficking into the event, but these types of enforcement mechanisms can’t stop consumption.
If anyone believes these findings don’t apply to the USA, I’d love to hear your reasoning. This is the type of bipartisan, public-health focused research that I think we should be relying on. As we’ve seen over the last month, attempting to appeal to morality, ethics, or some form of value system will fail and fail hard during the reign of Orange Xerxes. The only chance we have at winning is to force the conversation entirely into data and effects of current policies on the ground. A study like this is something that police, “family first” organizations and even straight up anti-drug advocates have a hard time responding to. It allows us to move the conversation from “What should America be like?” to “What actually works?” By doing so, you neatly remove the “People shouldn’t be doing drugs!” talking point from the repertoire of the advocate you’re debating with. Even if you believe people shouldn’t be doing drugs, you can’t ignore the fact that the policing schemes that are discussed in the study simply don’t work to achieve those ends.
There will always be people whose cognitive dissonance is so large that this will fall on deaf ears. But, for those who are willing to listen, discussing this study might just be a step in the door with your cop uncle or Catholic cousin. We need all the help we can get, so tread softly, avoid people who steal your bandwidth, and find consensus wherever you can. 2017 demands it.