SLIDE 1 (depicted in the above photo)
DanceWize is a harm reduction peer education outreach program administered through Harm Reduction Victoria, which is an Australian state-wide drug user organisation. The peer-led charity was established in the late 1980s in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In Australia each state and territory has a similar drug user organisation and the Australian IV League (or AIVL) is the peak national body. At present, Australia’s network of drug user organisations is funded by the Department of Health, but in the early years these were grass roots movements that followed in the tradition of the first Dutch drug user organisations which utilised civil disobedience actions in order to advocate for policy and treatment reforms and respect for the civil rights of people who use drugs, especially the most marginalised sub-demographic of people who inject drugs.
The Ozzy application of this civil disobedience tradition was evidenced by drug users disseminating sterile injecting equipment to their peers from 1986 onwards. That is, drug users were the first to respond after it was understood that HIV was a blood borne virus. Luckily the policy-lag for establishing needle and syringe programs was only a year and NSPs were formally rolled-out in Australia in 1987. The coupling of drug user civil disobedience and subsequent pragmatic policy meant Australia averted an HIV epidemic and the rate of HIV incidence among people who inject drugs down under has never exceeded 2%. Drug users caring about other people who use drugs; their peers, the community, and mobilising themselves; filled the gap of bureaucratic process, which too often allows drug-related harm to prevail. Flash forward to present day Australia, and let’s introduce DanceWize and consider some of the challenges the program encounters due to the practical reality of drug use trends and the inadequate policy responses or omissions of the Australian government.
What is now known as ‘DanceWize’ was independently established in 1995 by a dedicated group of ravers, as such, they called their initiative RaveSafe. RaveSafe negotiated free entry into Doofs and in return this crew would host a marquee as a chill space for people experiencing distress due to intoxication. It was also a space to information-share among peers. While it may be obvious, before continuing I should probably explain what I mean by ‘Doof’. SLIDE 4 (see below) Urban Dictionary attributes the origins of the term to Australian street slang referencing large outdoor raves that play electronic music, especially trance, in remote bush locations. If you’re intrigued, Urban Dictionary also defines the verb ‘Doofing’ and provides a scripted example of how Ozzy Doofers might use the term in a typical sentence. Now in the 90s and early noughties/00s RaveSafe performed its services at Doofs specifically and only. In 1999 RaveSafe came under the administration of Harm Reduction Victoria who was able to offer these ravers some limited but valuable resources. Coming under HRV’s administration meant RaveSafe was Department of Health funded too. The value of this program started to be recorded and reported with visit stats and annual reports and, in part, this formalising process helped refine the program’s model; a model that could be applied to a range of types of music events and festivals not just Doofs. In 2008 RaveSafe was rebranded as DanceWize.
Today DanceWize still attends multi-day outdoor Doofs, but also large commercial events, which may be indoor or outdoor, single or multi-day events, and city-based nightclub events. The DanceWize chill space is hosted by our team of volunteer Key Peer Educators (KPEs). KPEs are trained in senior first aid; mental health first aid; depressant overdose prevention and response (including naloxone training); trip sitter training for challenging psychedelic experiences based on techniques advocated by the Californian-based Multi-disciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS) and anecdotally we´ve found these techniques quite effective for managing stimulant overdoses, including drug-induced psychosis too; basic pharmacology and legal drug classifications; Needle and syringe program training; blood borne virus and STI education training; paralegal training; responding to sexual assault training; and substance specific harm reduction education and information sharing sessions are a regular feature of DanceWize´s fortnightly team meetings. You might say the DanceWize team is multi-disciplinary as we have team members with backgrounds in medicine, social sciences, law, and education professionals, some team members are completing studies in complementary fields and their hours of volunteer work are recorded as a placement component for their studies, other team members are unemployed and have no formal qualifications, but most importantly all DanceWize KPEs are recruited from the dance scene and they are drug user peers by self-definition and are recognised as such by their peers. There is no hierarchy among KPEs and each team member has a wealth of personal experience that informs their work. When operating the DanceWize chill space a team leader is nominated for each shift, this is generally a more experienced KPE, but we operate on a horizontal structure and the team leader is simply the person who is most familiar with or has a flare for the paperwork that now goes along with running the DanceWize chill space.
The DanceWize chill space is still a place where people experiencing distress can receive care and support, but now, for the sake of duty of care, anonymous records are kept on people who come into DanceWize´s care and we describe these as ´Intense Interventions´. During Intense Interventions we use a coding system that has been approved by a Victorian emergency service, which serves as an appropriate response guide and indicates when a referral to medical services is advisable or essential. Further, the DanceWize chill space is still a place where information-exchanges occur among peers. These are recorded as Brief Interventions. During Brief Interventions Key Peer Educators may disseminate harm reduction educational resources from a range of alcohol and other drug service providers, including DanceWize´s own substance specific publications. SLIDE 6 (see below) The series of 13 resources is one of DanceWize’s greatest achievements in recent years. These resources are in a way collaborative publications developed over years which provide insight into what our peers want, need, and already know. DanceWize’s Brief Intervention records inform how we edit and refine our resources. In each double-sided A4 sheet we don’t waste words trying to discourage uptake or promote the cessation of use. If we did we’d lose our credibility and severe the unique and productive link we have with our community. What do we say?
We define the chemical compound, provide dosage tips, and encourage people to record their pattern of use according to a unit of measure that suits them best; we catalogue the short and long term physical, emotional, and psychological effects of the substance; its duration, and note the minimum amount of time needed between last use and driving a vehicle, we discuss the effect of poly drug combinations with particular emphasis on common combinations; we stress the importance of balanced nutrition; and we remind people to stay hydrated.
We take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing and Brief Interventions may also be in regard to requests for health and sexual health supplies like condoms and the ´hard-sell´ dental dams, ear plugs, dust masks, sun screen, space blankets, female sanitary products spare clothing, and DanceWizers regularly help festival goers repair footwear with gaffa tape and cable ties, we also offer NSP supplies for both injecting drug use, but more commonly peers request barrels for accurate GHB measurement. Two of the most common Brief Intervention topics our community approaches DanceWize for information on are in regards to Police Powers in matters such as Passive Alter Detection or sniffer dog operations and random roadside drug testing, and our peers want pill testing or drug checking services to be made available to them.
Both topics cut to heart of the compounding pressures on drug-related issues in Australia. The health of people who use drugs and the wellbeing of the community at large is consistently jeopardised by moral prudery and hysteria, the strangle hold of the populace vote, by knee-jerk panicked reactions that misunderstand the practice and philosophy of harm reduction and inaccurately reduce it to apathy at best and at its worst the promotion of drug use.
In 1985 Australia adopted the harm minimisation model as its National Drug Strategy. As you´re aware, Harm Minimisation is not a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug use, rather it is a three-faceted response consisting of supply reduction (that is, enforcement initiatives that aim to reduce the net market of illicit drugs), demand reduction (health interventions that aim to reduce the prevalence of drug use through targeted health promotion campaigns and alcohol and other drugs sector treatment), and harm reduction (health interventions that aim to reduce the prevalence of drug-related harm through targeted health promotion education messages and the provision of necessary health services like sexual health supplies and needle and syringe programs). Harm Minimisation is a practical approach to drug policy which acknowledges that drug use is a reality that can be found in every demographic of society; it accepts that some degree of drug use will always prevail; and that supply reduction efforts that target individual users, that are imbalanced against, or exist in the absence of demand and harm reduction efforts, actually increase the prevalence of drug-related harm.
Despite the invaluable fiscal support DanceWize receives from the Department of Health, the current funding climate (where community programs must compete for tenders before then being expected to foster productive partnerships and jump through performance indicator hoops) and, speaking in personification, the identity crisis that is Australia’s National Drug Strategy (with harm minimisation being fatally misunderstood by those responsible for its supply reduction component), it is no surprise that drug user organisations like HRV, must continue to employ grass roots initiative and civil disobedience actions in order to promote the health rights and human rights of people who use drugs.
With reference to DanceWize´s recordings, let us first consider the impact of how police in Australia address personal drug use; and, secondly, the barriers that restrict pill testing or drug checking kits being available for Ozzy partygoers direct from a harm reduction program like DanceWize.
Passive Alert Detection or Sniffer Dog Operations are regularly conducted in or near music festivals or events in Aus. Some event promoters, more commonly those who organise large commercial festivals, want this police service as, arguably, their compliance mitigates their culpability in an event where serious drug-related harm occurs. In such cases the sniffer dogs are often positioned immediately after a festival’s entrance meaning attendees are funneled towards the sniffer dogs. Unlike other more progressive jurisdictions, there is no legal framework for drug amnesty bins in Australia and police are mandated to intervene upon the reasonable suspicion that someone is in possession of a controlled substance. Alternatively, sniffer dog operations are also set up on the roadside near a Doof and going to such parties is deemed reasonable suspicion warranting a vehicle search. My work vehicle was searched twice in one day while performing outreach despite me showing them my Department of Health NSP outreach worker registration card and I have no priors. If a sniffer dog identifies a festival attendee as being in possession of drugs they are searched, often strip searched, and if drugs are found on their person the most common outcome is a drug diversion issued at police discretion and they may be referred for a drug and alcohol intake assessment. A drug diversion means no charge, but a record is kept and it stands against the individual if their conduct attracts police attention again in the future.
A NSW Ombudsmen inquiry conducted in 2006 found sniffer dogs an ineffective deterrent strategy with a false positive detection rate of 75%, that is 3/4 people subject to police searches were NOT in possession of illicit drugs, and the unofficial false negative rate is everyone who is still able to get high at the party. However, Police in some Australian states report success rates as high as 85% because 85% of people searched disclosed that they had been in contact with illicit substances in the past. The most outrageous example I´m aware of was an individual who was searched, was not in possession, but disclosed they had been in contact with illicit substances 1 year prior! I argue that statistic demonstrates the persuasive power of police to obtain admissions statements rather than a job well done by dogs with an acute sense of smell. I wish I could write my own funding performance indicators with the same amount of discretion. There are documented cases of deaths where festival goers have panicked upon seeing sniffer dogs and consumed all the drugs in their possession at once. The most recent example was in Sydney in 2013.
Now remembering the goal for police under a harm minimisation model is to reduce supply, consider this outcome and you decide whether sniffer dog operations equal tax payer money well spent. In Melbourne this month a commercial event attracted a crowd of close to 9,000 people. The nature of the event’s set up, with only a single entrance, meant every attendee was funneled past sniffer dogs. 35 arrests were made. 2 people were charged with drug offences. On average these 35 people were each in possession of less than 1.6 grams of cannabis.
In Australia a disproportionate amount of funding is directed toward supply reduction efforts despite the more effective outcomes our demand and harm reduction sectors continue to produce. Dr Alex Wodak, President of Australia’s Drug Law Reform Foundation metaphorically described Australia’s Harm Minimisation model as being a three-legged stool with one very long leg. In 2015 the Australian government rolled-out the National Ice Taskforce in order to address what is callously referred to in the media as Australia’s Ice epidemic. I understand that of the Taskforce’s $45.5 million budget, $42 million has been dedicated to supply reduction efforts.
My introduction referenced the place for civil disobedience in health promotion and harm reduction peer education. Finally, I´d like to discuss pill testing or drug checking. Of the 1,957 Brief Interventions DanceWize performed in the last financial year, 587 were classified as cases where peers were seeking substance specific harm reduction information and strategies regarding MDMA or pills. DanceWize KPEs typically handle these queries by informing people that pills may or may not contain MDMA and may contain novel psychoactive substitutes and adulterants like PMMA, we encourage people to test their drugs even if only with reagent tests like Mecke and Mandelin, and inform people that such tests do not give an indication of dose.
In another almost 200 Brief Interventions peers approached DanceWize directly requesting drug checking services. On their face pill testing kits are legal in Australia, but DanceWize can´t promote such a service without attracting negative attention from authorities including our funder who is risk adverse and doesn´t see the harm reduction benefit of drug checking. So DanceWize team members have to act independent from the program in order to facilitate such a service and, due to these independent efforts of individuals, in the last 12 months in Victoria three different pills have been found to contain PMMA; other pills were found to contain 2CI, 2CB, and methylone; 2CE, MXE and another ketamine analogue were detected being sold as ketamine; several tabs the consumers thought was LSD were NBOMe; and this is not the exhaustive list. NPSs aren´t taking over by any means, but their presence is noteworthy.
The most significant drug trend I observe is that Australians like drugs. According to the 2014 Global Drug Survey 18% of Australians aged 14 years and older have used illicit drugs or misused pharmaceuticals in the last year. Australia´s drug market is well cultivated and many Ozzy partygoers are intrepid psychonauts, with substances such as DMT having a cult-like status in certain circles. Despite this she´ll be right, let´s get on it mentality, I´ve witnessed the impact unexpected reagent results have on peers who willingly discard the drugs they were so eager to consume. In the absence of regulation, drug checking is an essential harm reduction tool. It would be wonderful if DanceWize could proactively promote such a service or, better yet, partner with services that have the capacity to conduct more sophisticated tests.
SLIDE 9 (see below)
But in the meantime DanceWize will just continue doing what it´s always done: make ends meet and keep moving forward in order to advocate for the health rights and human rights of our peers.
Slide 9 (same as 1)