Rainbow Serpent, Victoria’s iconic, much-loved bush doof (or “music festival” depending on who you’re talking to) changed a lot in 2018. First up, there was the nang ban. Citing environmental concerns, Rainbow’s organisers this year took the step of completely outlawing nitrous oxide and all “affiliated materials” at the event. Of course, the familiar sound could still be heard echoing through campsites, but the “Leave No Trace” ethos was there.
This year was also the first time in the festival’s history that patrons were subject to a Police Passive Alert Detection dog operation at the gates. And along with the sniffer dogs, Victoria Police also deployed a large van to patrol campgrounds and had mounted police on horseback. VICE has been told there were undercover plainclothes police officers present on the site as well.
But it was the announcement of the sniffer dog operation that sparked real concern for punters—lighting up Facebook groups and DMs the week leading up to Rainbow. Rumours spread quicker than the grass fire, which came less than a couple of hundred metres from the festival grounds.
We headed along to watch the sniffer dog operation in action, and ask punters whether the presence of dogs would stop them taking drugs at Rainbow.
Police lead a sniffer dog around a car at the gates of Rainbow Serpent. All images by author
The police set up at the festival's entrance
When we arrived early on Thursday morning, the police were already set up at the gates. Cars piled up from the festival entrance all the way to the turn off road, baking in the heat. Thousands anxiously waited to see if their car would be selected for a search. “Everyone in the car was flipping out,” Ange, 24, told us. “They thought they were going to go to jail.”
Near the entrance gates police were set up with at least five squads of sniffer dogs. Handlers walked past the lines of the cars with their dogs, before selecting which ones would be searched. It was unclear why some cars were searched and others weren't, as the sniffer dogs did not always make an indication before a car was pulled apart by the cops. The dogs sniffed both people and cars and, in some cases, pat down searches were conducted by the police.
Felicity, 19, who was attending her first Rainbow said she wasn't too worried about the dogs actually being able to sniff out drugs. "I’ve heard heaps about them getting distracted by all the noise and smells when they’re at doofs," she said. "I looked this upon online, and I think they can’t smell juice [GHB,] acid, or K [ketamine]. But I don’t know for sure."
Like a lot of young people though, Felicity said she didn't know much about her legal rights when it came to a sniffer dog search. "I was just hoping our car didn’t get searched because I was just going to down [swallow] my stash if they did," she said.
Derek, 45, who’d been to "more Rainbows than [he] can remember” said this was exactly the kind of thing he'd been worried about when he heard about the dogs. "The police presence makes me feel anxious and worried for the younger ones that might panic and do something regrettable after seeing the dogs," he explained. "I know the culture has changed a bit over the years but Rainbow is a community that looks after each other."
Derek said the sniffer dogs made it feel like something had shifted. "It made me feel like we’d lost something special at Rainbow. It made me feel angry that police resources were being poured into this operation, instead of being directed to something that can actually help people stay safe, like pill testing," he said.
For four-time Rainbow-goer Ange, the sniffer dog presence made her angry more than anything else. "I thought it was a load of fucking shit. I’ve been here enough times to know that even if they checked everyone coming in, there’d still be drugs all over Rainbow,” she said. "The festival looks after people if they cook themselves. There’s spaces to chill if you need to, so the cops don’t need to be doing this."
Everyone VICE spoke to at Rainbow said the presence of sniffer dogs wouldn't stop them taking drugs at the event. "I’m going to keep doing my thing and keep enjoying Rainbow," Ange said. "The cops can keep wasting the taxpayers money on this kind of stuff knowing it’s not going to change the fact that people do drugs not just at places like Rainbow but everywhere, really." Seeing a man with “KETAMINE” written on his back approach one of the mounted police horses during the festival and pat it really drove Ange’s point home.
For all of the police presence on the ground at Rainbow, there were very few arrests. Early anecdotal reports said 30 people had been charged with drug-related offences within the first few hours of the gates opening. In reality, according to the Victoria Police’s official media release, the total number of arrests for drug possession was five. One person was caught trafficking drugs, a volunteer nabbed on his way to the festival with 260 grams of cocaine. There were two arrests for drunken behaviour, one drunk driver, and 44 people pulled up driving with drugs in their system.
These figures need a little bit of perspective. Rainbow Serpent is a five-day festival attended by 20,000 people. Of these punters, 0.025 percent were pulled up on drug possessions, 0.005 percent for drug trafficking. RBTs busted 0.005 percent of attendees for drunk driving, and 0.22 percent from "drug" driving.
Let’s compare this with figures from the AFL Grand Final weekend, when there were 250 Blood Alcohol Content offences, 202 Oral Fluid Drug offences, 6,200 traffic offences, and 820 crime offences.
Back in Melbourne, while Rainbow was kicking on out in the country, 20 people had to be rushed to hospital from an event called I Am Hardstyle at Festival Hall. The mass overdose was due to people taking what they thought was MDMA, but was likely to be drugs laced with paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA).
Yet despite this, and everything VICE saw on the ground at Rainbow, harm reduction measures like pill testing remain a distant dream. “We are not having pill testing in this state," Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said this week, "not under a government I lead, anyway.”
Nevena Spirovska is a drug law reform activist with harm reduction organisationUnharm. Follow her on Twitter.