Why a zero tolerance drug policy for festivals is not working (well)
Background: Since several years a strict zero tolerance drug policy model, with strong repressive measures on site, is becoming common practice at festivals in Flanders, Belgium. This policy model is often framed as effective because of the many revelers caught in possession of illegal substances. However, this is a one-sided indicator for success.
Methods: To fully understand the impact of this policy change, VAD used a multi method approach that consisted of a literature review on the concept of ‘zero tolerance drug policy’ and its deterrent effects at festivals; focus group discussions and individual interviews with members of a multidisciplinary working group (i.e., police, prosecutors, festival organizers, emergency physicians, security agents, harm reduction workers (HRW), researchers, and prevention experts) to discover differences in their viewpoints, beliefs and goals; and two field observations at festivals (including the preparatory drug policy meetings).
Results: All actors involved in the drug policy formulate their own answer to the reality of illegal substance (mis)use at festivals. From a legislative perspective, police and prosecutors aim for drug-free festivals, while festival organizers and HRW mainly deal with substances at festivals from a health perspective. Policy measures at festivals are often insufficiently aligned to each other, which is detrimental for the effect of the pursued policy. An important reason for this finding is the limited collaboration and communication between all actors before, during and after the festival. Moreover, in those cases where stakeholders communicate and collaborate, they too often depart from their own reference frameworks, without sufficiently taking into account the viewpoints of others. As a result, stakeholders understand and know too little about each other's actions and objectives, which considerably limits the potential of an effective policy. Finally, prevalence data show that illegal substance use at festivals in Flanders did not significantly change since the implementation of this strict zero tolerance policy model.
Conclusions: Illegal substance use is a reality at festivals, specifically at electronic dance music events. Our study shows that repressive measures hardly affect the actual substance use on site. Moreover, a policy model that is framed as 'A zero tolerance drug policy' is contra productive because it hinders the effective implementation of prevention, harm reduction and curative measures on site.
Consequently, an effective drug policy for festivals should be in line with the vision of the festival, with the culture of the scene and has to seek a balance between repressive, preventive, harm-reducing and curative measures. All measures should reinforce each other to guarantee the safety and health of festival goers as much as possible. To achieve this high level cooperation, confidence is a necessary condition. It is important that all involved actors are open to the opinion and role of others and respect the role of others. These values are gained by open and honest communication and extensive collaboration.