16. Harm Reduction

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The principles of harm reduction accept that no matter the rigour of messaging around the individual risks and dangers of substance use, there will always be people who take or experiment with substances. Many people who use drugs recreationally do so only on occasions, and this use is often determined by the environment they are in. As such, it is important to ensure that individual harms associated with substance use are minimised wherever possible.

History has demonstrated that no matter the level of deterrence-based policy that is implemented around substance use at events, there will still be a proportion of people who consume substances. This results in an increased risk of harm, including potential overdose, at these events. Harm reduction strategies play a key role in reducing the adverse impacts of substance use at these events. Evidence based methods should be a focus of event organising and planning to reduce harm associated with substance use.

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Minimum Requirements

Harm reduction strategies

Harm reduction strategies at events are numerous and diverse. They range from the provision of water stations and free water bottles at events, to providing ‘pass outs’ or chill out and sanctuary spaces. They can also include engaging with expert organisations, who provide harm reduction information prior to the event, and even services for the duration of the event. The more that is done to address harm reduction at events, the more successful the outcomes are.

Chill out and sanctuary spaces

Environmental approaches to harm reduction focus on changing the social and physical environment and offer management and organisers an approach to harm reduction that is built into the design of events.

They focus on creating spaces (often called chill out or sanctuary spaces), which offer respite from the event, providing a quiet, calm, comfortable and shady space for patrons to relax. These might also be areas that provide hydration and food and can also be a good opportunity to provide health promotion information to patrons. This information can address a range of issues specific to the event environment, such as information on common substances taken at these events and information on how to care for friends who might be using substances.

Chill out spaces are also key areas in which to engage in peer education interventions. Peer education about substance use and harm at events is an effective way of reducing immediate harm, and potentially reducing future substance use. Peer-to-peer education teams are often the first point of call for patrons experiencing distress and are of critical importance to ensure that individuals seek and obtain the treatment needed.

Chill out spaces should be clearly signposted and marked on festival and event maps and information about them should be shared in programs and promotional material.

Peer education programs

DanceWize is a program of Harm Reduction Victoria, using a peer education model to reduce harm at Victorian dance parties, festivals, nightclubs and events. It is volunteer led and provides a judgement-free chill out space where patrons can access accurate and credible information about drug and alcohol related harm, through both face-to-face discussion and resources, and support services. Volunteers are first aid trained, though patrons that need medical attention are referred to onsite health providers, such as St John Ambulance.

Event organisers can contact Harm Reduction Victoria to request the presence of DanceWize at their events. (Contact details below)

save-a-mate is a health program run by Australian Red Cross, that provides peer-to-peer information services in urban, rural and remote areas. Trained volunteers utilise chill out spaces to identify and support people who are experiencing adverse reactions to substances.

Event organisers can contact save-a-mate (Contact details below)

Healthcare and first aid providers

St John Ambulance provide onsite healthcare and first aid services at events around Australia. St John team members are specifically trained to address issues that may arise from substance use at these events and can provide advice as well as medical treatment or assistance if needed.

Event organisers can contact St Johns Ambulance to request a service quote (Contact details below)

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Key information

Illicit drug use

There is no safe level of drug use. Common recreational drugs carry risks that are specific to how they are taken, particularly at events. Drugs such as ecstasy and MDMA are commonly consumed recreationally, and carry the following common risks:

  • high body temperatures
  • dehydration
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure 
  • anxiety 
  • irrational behaviour
  • visual and auditory hallucinations

Some of these effects can lead to behaviours such as excessive water consumption, which can be fatal – especially in first time users. The effects of these drugs can also be exacerbated by the environment at the event. People may take larger doses or over a longer period of time keep their energy levels up, and when coupled with elevated activity levels the effects may result in significant harm.

Environmental factors such as heat and sunstroke can lead to further overheating and dehydration.

Training & communication

Staff and security training

It is important for event staff and security to be trained appropriately when dealing with people who might be affected by alcohol and other drugs. When staff are appropriately trained, the potential for anti-social and aggressive behaviour due to alcohol and other drugs among patrons is reduced. Staff and security should be made aware of first aid procedures if a drug-related emergency takes place at events. First aid providers such as St John’s Ambulance would be able to support staff and security in these situations.

By taking some simple steps to ensure basic harm reduction principles and practices are in place at events the risks associated with illicit drug use can be reduced.

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