'Underbelly' of harm at Rhythm & Alps festival: Police

Rhythm & Alps will run from December 29-31, with 10,000 partygoers expected to attend. File photo...
Rhythm & Alps will run from December 29-31, with 10,000 partygoers expected to attend. File photo: ODT
A mix of intoxication, illicit drug use and sexual offending at the Rhythm & Alps festival in the Cardrona Valley causes an ‘‘underbelly’’ of harm to patrons that largely goes unreported, police say.

Police national co-ordinator of alcohol harm prevention Acting Senior Sergeant Ian Paulin made the claim at a district licensing committee hearing in Queenstown today to consider the festival's alcohol licence application .

Now in its 13th year, the annual New Year’s Eve music and camping festival will be held on December 29-31, with 10,000 partygoers and more than 6000 campers expected to attend.

The committee of chairman Lyal Cocks and members Phil Jones and John Mann is considering the application after it was opposed by police and Te Whatu Ora.

Te Whatu Ora health promotion adviser Alannah Smyth, appearing for the medical officer of health, said it opposed the application because festival organiser Alex Turnbull had been unwilling to reduce the alcohol serve limit or the licensing hours.

Giving young patrons the ability to buy four 400ml alcoholic drinks at a time for 16 hours straight was ‘‘not safe nor responsible’’, Ms Smyth said.

Acting Sen Sgt Paulin said the police drafted national guidelines for large-scale events a few months ago, which included a two-standard-drink serving limit per patron.

Although Rhythm & Alps had a good track record, its management plans did not sufficiently mitigate the risks of harm from alcohol, drugs and sexual assaults.

The combination of alcohol, the party drug ecstasy, and the mainly 18 to 25-years age range of its patrons caused the ‘‘underbelly that nobody wants to talk about’’, he said.

Police were not advocating ‘‘prohibition’’ or shutting down the festival, but had a responsibility to the parents of its young patrons, who had a perception the event was safe.

Rhythm & Alps counsel Tanya Surrey said the application met the criteria of the Sale & Supply of Alcohol Act, and the festival had operated for 13 years with a ‘‘solid track record’’.

The four-drink limit was consistent with similar events elsewhere in the country, Ms Surrey said.

Police claims of incidents going unreported was a reflection of crime in society generally, and it was "not appropriate for the committee to focus on things we don’t know happened’’.

Mr Turnbull said he was employing about 90 security staff for this month's festival, and had detailed alcohol and drug management plans.

There had been only ‘‘six or seven’’ arrests due to intoxication in the festival’s history.

The event’s duty manager held regular meetings with emergency services staff to discuss crowd behaviour, and would comply with any police directive to reduce the alcohol serving limit to two drinks a customer, Mr Turnbull said.

Although there would be no drug checking service at this month’s festival, he planned to provide one at future events once he was confident of doing it ‘‘very well’’.

Mr Cocks set a deadline of noon tomorrow for final written submissions by the applicant and Te Whatu Ora, and indicated the committee would approve the application, with conditions, by the end of Friday.

  - By Guy Williams

 - PIJF court reporter