A safer Mardi Gras in a drug decriminalised Sydney

Lawyer Nicholas Stewart wears glasses and a dress shirt
Nicholas Stewart is a partner at Dowson Turco Lawyers. He wants a safe and fun Mardi Gras for everyone. Photo: supplied.

NSW has decriminalised the possession of small quantities of drugs with fines rather than prosecution but pill testing can go further in minimising the harms associated with recreational drug use, writes Nicholas Stewart

Policing at Mardi Gras plays a significant role in ensuring the safety and enjoyment of the event.

From my perspective, the presence of police officers at Mardi Gras is vital, but their approach must prioritise the protection and safety of the LGBTQ+ community.

Police should receive LGBTQ+ cultural training to ensure they understand our diverse community and to foster a more positive atmosphere.

Police should also now issue fines rather than prosecute people for small drug possession offences.

After recent reforms a person in possession of a small quantity of drugs in NSW now has the opportunity to receive a fine rather than be required to appear in court where they risk more severe punishment.

Collaboration between police and LGBTQ+ community organisations is also crucial so we can work on developing practical strategies to minimise the harm of illicit drugs, while protecting the community from hate crimes and violence.

This would create an environment where festival participants feel entirely free to express their identities in a safe space.

When the police are seen as active allies dedicated to the community’s well-being, it improves the entire experience.

Pill testing at Mardi Gras can also play a vital role in minimising harms.

Dr Anna Olsen’s landmark study at the Australian National University found that pill testing leads individuals to discard drugs containing harmful substances.

Dangerous substances in the party scene have been catastrophic in Australia, with harmful additives added to cut costs.

In recent weeks we have also seen drugs of abnormally high strength in Australia, with serious health consequences. Eight partygoers were put into induced comas and on breathing tubes after the Hardmission Festival in Victoria.

Pill testing will foster trust between the community and health providers which can reduce harm and increase patron safety at Mardi Gras this year.

With Mardi Gras traditionally being held in March, one of our warmer months, a hotter climate can significantly impact responsible drug use.

Pill testing stations provide a critical service by creating a safe space for people to have drugs tested, and engage in important conversations about what they plan to consume and the associated health and safety risks.

The LGBTQ+ community brings a unique perspective to discussions about police presence, drug policy, and harm reduction at events like Mardi Gras.

Historically, our community has often existed on the fringes of society and has developed its own strategies for self-regulation.

In the LGBTQ+ community, this has led to the emergence of community organisations that provide essential services at parties and festivals.

Groups like Thorne Harbour Health in Victoria and ACON in NSW provide information in safe spaces or chill out areas at parties where counsellors can assist those who might experience adverse effects of drugs, and ‘rovers’, who are friendly faces on the dance floor but also monitor for overdoses and safety risks.

These services have been proven to work in the LGBTQ+ party scene so much so that they’re now serving as a model for harm reduction across Australia.

As we navigate the evolving landscape of drug policy, policing, and harm reduction, it is critical to prioritise the safety and enjoyment of participants at Mardi Gras 2024.

A collaborative approach between law enforcement, LGBTQ+ organisations, and festival attendees can lead to a more inclusive and responsible celebration of diversity

-Nicholas Stewart is a leading criminal and human rights lawyer and a partner at Dowson Turco Lawyers

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