Iceland, Music Festivals, Drug Use and Shocking Police Antics Under the Midnight Sun

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July 15, 2014 - By Sharda Sekaran

Last year, I had an opportunity to travel to Iceland for the Airwaves Music Festival, when I tagged along with a fantastic group of “ambassadors” from the city of San Francisco. I fell absolutely in love with my time in Iceland – the music scene, the people, the spectacular nature.

I also took a liking to the enviably progressive social policies, with an exception, as I would come to find out later, when it comes to drugs. 

My boss, the Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, recently went on a speaking tour in Iceland organized by the Icelandic equivalent of DPA, a group called Snarrótin. Ethan gave a talk at the University of Iceland and made an appearance on Icelandic national television. DPA is also currently embarking on a project specifically designed to promote model policies rooted in health science and harm reduction to help ensure that people are being safe while they are enjoying good times at music festivals and parties.

I decided to go back to Iceland this year for the debut of a new event, the Secret Solstice Festival, which was scheduled to take place during a period when Iceland experiences uninterrupted daylight. I enjoyed the lineup and the atmosphere but I was dismayed to find a heavy police presence and high number of arrests.

I was first alerted to the presence of plainclothes police by friends from Snarrótin, who were filming them as they stopped and searched festival attendees. Sunna Ævarsdóttir, a journalist and human rights lawyer who covered the festival, reported that many of the searches may have been in violation of Icelandic law, which says that searches without a court order may only be done if there is reasonable suspicion that the person involved committed a crime punishable by more than two years in prison.

Unfortunately in this case, it seems that being young and attending a music festival was being used as “reasonable suspicion.”  There were 70 arrests at the festival – and potentially quite serious consequences for the individuals involved.  In Iceland, there are shockingly harsh drug laws with possible penalties of up to 12 years imprisonment for sales and up to 6 for possession. Even in cases not involving prison time, the societal consequences from a criminal record can be substantial.

Hostile and invasive drug policing, biased profiling, harsh penalties are things I am unfortunately all too familiar with at home in the United States, and described in an interview before the festival on Icelandic national radio. Iceland, with its tiny national population of only 320,000, has impressively visionary social policies for everything from families and parenting to environmental conservation.

They also did some unique and unconventional things after their notorious fallout from the global banking crisis, such as electing a quirky leftist cross-dressing punk rock comedian named Jón Gnarr (who ran for office as kind of performance art) as mayor of the capital city, Reykjavik. While I was prepared for the unpredictable weather, as I told Ævarsdóttir, I was not expecting such an aggressive level of drug policing.

Snarrótin has been leading public criticism of police misbehavior at Secret Solstice and using this unfortunate moment as a way to spark a broader dialogue about drug policy reform in the country. Snarrótin has produced pamphlets to distribute at future festivals that inform attendees about their legal rights when confronted by police.

I hope this leads to greater accountability and that the next time I go back for a festival in beautiful Iceland, the emphasis will be on helping peaceful attendees enjoy the experience safely, rather than giving them a hard time.

Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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