Can police deter drug use and supply at music festivals? An assessment of the deterrent effects of Australian street-level drug law enforcement

C. Hughes1*, V. Moxham-Hall1, A. Ritter1, R. MacCoun2, D. Weatherburn3

1 NDARC, UNSW Australia
2 Stanford Law School
3 NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

*corresponding author:


In efforts to prevent or deter illicit drug offending Australian street-level drug law enforcement deploy an increasing array of strategies (including policing with drug detection dogs, saturation policing and riot policing). Limited evidence of deterrence exists: albeit there are concerns some ‘deterrent’ strategies may have adverse public health impacts. This study assessed the likely impacts of four Australian policing strategies on the incidence and severity of drug use and selling at a common setting: outdoor music festivals.


A national online survey was constructed with five hypothetical or experimental vignettes involving four different policing strategies and a counter-factual (no police presence). The survey was administered to 2115 people who regularly attend festivals in late 2015. Participants were block-randomised to receive two vignettes and asked under each whether they would use, possess, purchase, give or sell illicit drugs.


Police presence led to a small reduction in engagement in drug offending at music festivals: particularly willingness to carry drugs into festival grounds. However, it had minimal or counterproductive impacts on the levels of purchasing or supply. Moreover, offending impacts varied significantly by policing strategy and patron’s frequency of prior policing encounters.


The findings suggest that street-level policing may deter some forms of drug offending, but that the major deterrent impacts will be on use and possession: not purchasing or supply. It further suggests that some popular strategies (and broader normalisation of policing at known drug use settings) may carry significant trade-offs for drug-related crime control and public health.


Dr Caitlin Hughes is a criminologist and Senior Research Fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia, where she works as part of the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP). Her research focuses on 1) evaluating and informing drug laws; 2) evaluating and informing criminal justice policies (including alternatives to arrest); 3) monitoring trends in drug trafficking and drug markets; and 4) researching the policy processes by which drug policy is informed and made. She is currently leading a two year ARC Discovery Project examining deterrent effects of Australian street-level drug law enforcement strategies.

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