Locking young people out of festivals won’t solve drug problems

T in the Park.JPGCONFIRMATION that this year’s three T in the Park deaths were drug-related comes as little surprise: healthy people under 30 tend not to just die suddenly, even if they’ve been drinking to excess and dancing all night. Most people who take drugs at music festivals do not die – but most people who die at musical festivals will have taken drugs.

The pathologists’ conclusions about the deaths of 29-year-old Jim Robertson and 17-year-olds Megan Bell and Peter McCallum lend credence to some of the more hysterical media coverage of the festival. Reading this, one would be forgiven for thinking it was first and foremost an excuse for three days of pill-popping hedonism and random violence, which just happens to be soundtracked by some well-known recording artists. The rather more mundane reality – that the vast majority of festival-goers are peaceful, well-behaved and have a ball – doesn’t make for lurid headlines.

Based on the media coverage, one would be forgiven for thinking T in the Park was first and foremost an excuse for three days of pill-popping hedonism and random violence

However, even one death per year is one too many, so what can be done to halt this grim trend? The grieving father of County Durham teenager Bell thinks the answer is to ban children from attending festivals altogether. And by children, he means anyone under 21. By contrast, McCallum’s family have specifically urged other young people to “learn a lesson” from his death.

So does the answer lie in banning, regulating and supervising, or in educating and informing? Currently, anyone under 16 attending T in the Park must be accompanied by an adult aged 21 or over, but no restrictions apply to those in between. It’s well understood that adolescent brains are still developing and that young people who may be adults on paper are nonetheless still more prone to impulsive and risk-taking behaviour, but it’s equally well recognised that prohibition alone is not the solution to social problems. New psychoactive substances lost their “legal high” status back in May – with their production, distribution, sale and supply now criminalised across the UK – but how many of those taking them are any the wiser?

It’s well understood that adolescent brains are still developing and that young people who may be adults on paper are nonetheless still more prone to impulsive and risk-taking behaviour

Experimenting and boundary-testing are an important part of growing up, and always have been. Parents can put in place as many restrictions or curfews as they like, but at some point the cotton wool will have to be unravelled and their offspring will have to make decisions for themselves. Unfortunately, tragedies cannot be avoided altogether. Car insurance rates reflect the particular danger posed by young male drivers, but are not enough to deter boy racers from putting themselves and others at risk. The answer is not banning all young people from getting behind the wheel, but empowering them to make better choices … even if doing so might make them unpopular or uncool.

All of which is not to say that spending the weekend in a field surrounded by temptations and peer pressure should be seen as a mandatory rite of passage for all under-21s, regardless of maturity and levels of street-wisdom. In decades gone by this experience could have been seen as a natural extension of hazy evenings drinking contraband cider in the park, getting up to mischief that would have given parents grey hairs if only they’d known about it. These days, young people reared indoors on a diet of Xbox and Snapchat may be less prepared for the big, wide world than ever before.

These days, young people reared indoors on a diet of Xbox and Snapchat may be less prepared for the big, wide world than ever before

Could T in the Park do more to safeguard its customers? Sure, but where should the line be drawn? Social media is awash with unverifiable scare stories of stewards standing by when fights break out, or turning a blind eye to drug use, but just this week an alleged ecstasy dealer walked free from court because a festival security guard – almost certainly motivated by good intentions – overstepped the mark by searching him. Security staff, stewards and first-aiders are there to keep order and provide assistance to those who come a cropper, but they are not in loco parentis. If parents believe their children – even their adult children – require constant supervision then they must consider whether these young people are safe out on a Saturday night in a busy city centre, let alone at an event like T in the Park.

It is right that the voices of the bereaved are heard when festival organisers, licensing boards and police sit down to plan future events, but there are no simple solutions here: festivals could be halted tomorrow and young people would still take drugs. Responding to this challenge means opening up a dialogue with them, not locking them out.

A version of this article first appeared in The Herald.

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