Rainbow Serpent Festival and the absurd and offensive call to shut it down
Over my time as an adult, I have had many interesting experiences that have made me who I am today. Psychedelic experiences have left an indelible mark on my soul that I hold dear to my identity today.
I am not alone. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, one in three of us have tried cannabis and one in ten regularly indulge. Hundreds of thousands of us use MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and many others every year. I’m a child of the internet age and the communities we have built together online cross the national boundaries. Psychedelic culture is a global phenomena, expressed through art, music, philosophy and celebrations across the globe.
My background is in commercial and community radio and I currently present a weekly radio show called ‘Enpsychedelia’ on Melbourne’s 3CR, which focuses on a broad range of issues around drugs.
Rainbow Serpent Festival is, in my opinion, one of Australia’s biggest expressions of psychedelic culture, but it is only one of dozens that occur all across Australia, either publicly or privately every year. This culture flourishes despite prohibition but is not defined by its use of drugs. The people who make the culture know that drugs are defined by the set and setting in which they are used. No matter what the drug is, the context and intention in which they used are far more important in defining the experience.
Nearly all Australians use drugs, with alcohol sitting high atop the preference list. The damage that is caused by alcohol also sits far above the damage that all other drugs combined (other than nicotine) cause Australians. Yet despite reports from on-site emergency and police officers of a successful and well behaved festival overall, Inspector Bruce Thomas of Ballarat Police has chosen to attack Rainbow Serpent Festival, which had around 20,000 people in attendance and ran like a small town for several days, for a comparatively small amount of incidents at the 2016 festival.
This year, Rainbow Serpent Festival was host to a drug policy reform panel with a range of experts and activists lending their voice to the conversation. Highly regarded emergency consultant Dr. David Caldicott was one of the panelists and said that, “Rainbow Serpent Festival represents best practice in Australia for managing the risks of drug use (at a festival).”
Heavy handed focus on comparatively minor issues indicates that some of our high level prohibitionists are worried about their place in a post-prohibition world. The community of people who use drugs are standing up for themselves and showing that they can develop best practice, even under prohibition and with very few resources at their hands. This makes the multi-million dollar policing and jailing efforts look rather silly. The continued support for the punitive efforts is based on fear and the need to feed that fear, which means that the people directly affected continue to be ignored, downtrodden, stigmatised and locked up.
In 1997, the United Nations met and came up with the slogan, “A drug free world, we can do it!” This was followed by the Howard Government’s, ‘Tough on Drugs’ campaign, which included increased expenditure for policing, new legislation and campaigns aimed at reducing drug use. Nearly 20 years later and the UN will be meeting again in April to discuss their drug strategies. In this time, several countries have legalised cannabis outright. Others are successfully experimenting with alternative policies to prohibition, most significantly Portugal who decriminalised all drug use and re-directed funds from policing to health and welfare. We’ve also seen the rise of the darknet and growth of the markets for ‘legal highs’ and other brand new drugs with no prior history of human use.
The naivety of supporting and continuing prohibition has been starkly illuminated in the past five years and viable pragmatic alternatives are constantly being developed and suggested. But still we have people like Insp. Thomas advocating for poor policy and directly attacking cultural institutions like Rainbow Serpent Festival over a comparatively small number of incidents.
What we should be doing is listening to the community of people who take drugs. Most of us won’t publicly acknowledge our taste in psychoactive substance for fear of persecution, because the vast majority of us are regular members of our broader Australian community. We are parents, teachers, police officers, students, politicians, labourers, academics, business owners and volunteers. We are passionate people and care for the health and welfare of our community. We know there are dangers with drug use, but we also know how to avoid the majority of them. We know that the biggest danger to a person who uses drugs doesn’t come from their psychoactive substance of choice, but from the potential legal and social consequences that could befall them.
Drugs aren’t going away but we can have a much healthier, much safer relationship with them. The first step is to stop criminalising and attacking those who enjoy them and start listening to them instead.