Australian Police Call Rainbow Serpent "High Risk" After Festival Death

Article by: Laura Mason|@everfest

Fri February 03, 2017 | 16:15 PM

Rainbow Serpent Festival is one of the longest-running and most respected boutique festivals in all of Australia. Filled with immersive art and music experiences and permeated with a vibe of kindness and warmth, upwards of 20,000 punters have gathered every January for 20 years to revel in the chance to dance together nonstop, experience powerful human connection, and learn of Australia's colorful heritage.

So it was a shock to the festival's generally excellent vibes when 22-year-old Jacob Langford passed away suddenly during the festival last weekend from mistakenly drinking an intoxicant meant for inhalation. There were also two reported sexual assaults and a few drug-traffcking arrests over the course of the weekend. Now, the festival has been targeted by local police as "high risk," which, Rainbow Serpent contends, is hypocritical and unfair.

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In a post today on Rainbow Serpent's website, the event defended itself against the criticism:

'The Melbourne Cup had nine arrests, five rushed to hospital and 78 people evicted in one day and when roadside operations detected one in three drivers in some suburbs with illicit substances in their system on Grand Final day in 2015, police praised the crowd for their good behaviour.

'We run for six days and have close to 20,000 exceptionally well behaved people attend,' he said, 'but just like any other community of 20,000 people, a small minority unfortunately do the wrong thing,' said Mr. [Festival Director Tim] Harvey."

Harvey went on to say: "'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.'"

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The eyes of the police on an event like Rainbow Serpent make it subject to increased police presence on or surrounding the festival grounds in the coming years. However, there are studies that suggest increased police presence does not equal less drug use – it just pushes the drug use more underground and into more unsafe territories.

One such study was performed by scientists at the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. It reported that the Australian government spends an estimated $1.7 billion on responding to illicit drugs every year, with policing comprising 64% of that expenditure. They wanted to determine whether such an investment in police forces can deter, discourage or prevent drug offending actually works, because it is so widely argued that drug laws and enforcement of those laws will reduce involvement in drug use and trafficking.

Put more succinctly, the project wanted to provide the first comprehensive assessment of the deterrent effects of street-level Australian drug law enforcement at two common settings of policing: outdoor music festivals and licensed entertainment precincts.

In a twist, the scientists relied on festival-goers themselves to report what they would do in five different scenarios involving different kinds of policing strategies: High Visibility Policing, Riot Policing, Collaborative Policing & Policing with Drug Detection Dogs, and No police presence (a control scenario). While any police presence scenarios led to a 4.6% reduction in overall illicit drug offending, it only meant a reduction in people willing to carry drugs into an event or carry them on their bodies. The study showed that overall drug consumption and purchasing within festival grounds then goes up, which means less drug testing, more dangerous bunk getting sold, less forethought into what you're taking, and when and how you're taking it.

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This helps prove that a zero-tolerance attitude towards drug consumption is simply illogical and ignorant. A more thorough approach points to the acknowledgement that drug use may occur and encourages the development of widespread, nonjudgmental access to medical care, water and nourishment for those in who need it. Perhaps American music festivals and US law enforcement surrounding those festivals could take note from this study.

The festival cannot comment on the death of Langford while investigations are ongoing, but it is "devastated" by his death and it stands by the event's comprehensive medical and emergency response teams. Adrian Widuckel, General Manager of Colbrow Medics who provided first aid at the festival, reports that all medical incidents on site were responded to within four minutes of getting reported to festival staff – including Langford's. Indeed, Rainbow Serpent provides medical services and emergency response professionals dedicated to the safety of its patrons. It even added a safe space this year for women and gender diverse patrons. There is also free drinking water across festival grounds, and a comprehensive Community Responsibility section on its web page outlining its 10 Pillars of Festival Safety and containing info on impaired driving, cautions against reckless drug use, and much more helpful advice.

Dr. David Caldicott, an emergency medicine specialist from Calvery Hospital in Canberra, Australia, was quoted in Rainbow Serpent's statement saying the festival "is a model for providing a safe event environment and police should commend organizers' efforts."

“'Hands down, there is not another festival in the Southern Hemisphere that provides this level of safety and medical support for patrons; they even have some of Melbourne’s best emergency department doctors on site,' said Dr. Caldicott."

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Clearly, Rainbow Serpent has done pretty much all it can with its budgets to ensure attendees make the right decisions, just short of having each one of their attendees searched top to bottom for drugs on their way into the festival, and anyone found with drugs arrested and taken away.

Praise for the festival's conscientious approach to safety and responsibility is coming in from other angles, as well – even local government officials and the mother of another young man who died at Rainbow Serpent in 2012. Adriana Buccianti, mother of passed-away punter Daniel Buccianti, said, “'My heart dropped when I heard the news and my heart goes out to Jacob’s family but I have attended every Rainbow since Daniel’s passing and have only experienced happy crowds, safety conscious organizers and overwhelming love and support from everyone I meet at the time of year I need it most.'”

The festival maintains that it does everything it can to encourage patrons to make safe, healthy lifestyle choices but "individuals must also accept some responsibility for their personal wellbeing."

Its statement ends with: “'Superintendent Allen said it himself in the media – that despite a heavy presence, his officers can’t stop people making risky choices,' said Mr. Harvey, 'and I just don’t understand how they expect us to achieve what they acknowledge they can’t despite their massive resources.'”

What do you think? Do you think Rainbow Serpent is being unfairly targeted? Tell us in the comments below.