From Iceland — Subject To (Illegal) Search: Sónar, Police And Privacy

Subject To (Illegal) Search: Sónar, Police And Privacy

Published February 12, 2015

Subject To (Illegal) Search: Sónar, Police And Privacy

There were plenty of reasons to think last year’s Sónar was the dog’s bollocks. There was HE’s theatrical unveiling, Trentemøller’s thumping set, and James Holden’s psychedelic saxophone-infused modular synth show—all the stuff of legend. Not as amusing, however, was when the police showed up with sniffer dogs and arrested around 30 people on drug charges.

Amongst those who protested was one Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, a human rights lawyer who is currently compiling educational material on Icelandic drug policy for civil rights organisation Snarróttin. A lover of electronic music, she really enjoyed everything about Sónar last year, yet left the festival with a bitter taste in her mouth after witnessing the police’s actions. We caught up with her to hear her thoughts on the matter, and how she thinks the festival can be improved.

The young and impressionable

Þórhildur is quick to point out that these invasive police procedures almost exclusively target music festivals frequented by young people. “Electronic music fans are treated by the police like they are all heavy drug users,” she says, “despite there being no empirical evidence to support such theories.” Þórhildur says it goes without saying that a certain number of people will do drugs at Sónar, but that this is true of just about any festival or gathering of people, “such as at the annual Landsbanki bank staff party.”

She feels that not only is it a complete mood killer to be stopped and searched by the police, but it also serves to alienate young people, and marginalise drug users. In her mind it is indicative of an out-dated methodology of drug enforcement, as evidence of which she points to the 2011 findings of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a UN panel consisting of 22 world leaders, whose report outright stated that the war on drugs had been lost.

“The execution of these policies has done more harm than good,” Þórhildur says, “and damaged the economy, people’s health and their right to privacy. These findings are widely known, and yet the Icelandic police still persist in enforcing their strict prohibition policy. It makes no sense.”

Stop that, and frisk off!

Although the Minister of Health, Kristján Þór Júlíusson, has indicated that he’s willing to reconsider Iceland’s drug policies, at present we are stuck with the current laws and regulations, in which Þórhildur says the police exploit every vulnerability in order to make their busts. This includes preying on people’s timidness and coercing them into consenting to a search, lest they appear suspicious and warrant a search, in true Catch 22 fashion. “Even if you haven’t done anything wrong, you are still constitutionally entitled to your privacy,” she says, “and when the police search you in front of everyone, like they did at Secret Solstice last year, they are informing everyone that they suspect you are a felon. This goes against the police’s stated policy, but they do it anyway.”

If you do not consent to being searched, the police can still frisk you, but they need to state probable cause for doing so. “Being at an electronic festival is not probable cause for a search,” she stresses, “nor is what you look like, or your previous behaviour.” Þórhildur states the probable cause needs to be along the lines of the police witnessing you involved in a drug deal or using drugs, or them receiving a tip from a concerned citizen.

Who watches the watchmen? No one, that’s who

According to Þórhildur, part of the problem has to do with how much unchecked authority the police has. Although she doesn’t go so far as to say all police officers abuse their authority, in her experience the right to privacy can be the first casualty in the pursuit of drug bust quotas. “The police need to be more mindful of the principle of proportionality when it comes to arresting people with small drug doses,” she says, “and the public needs to hold the police more accountable for their tactics.”

Þórhildur encourages festivalgoers and others to consider carefully whether or not to consent being patted down. If people do consent, they should know the police officer searching them must be of the same gender, that the search must be done in a secluded location, and that police officers have to write a report on the spot, even if they don’t find anything. “If the report lacks probable cause, those searched may be entitled to damages,” she adds.

When asked how she would change the arrangement for the coming Sónar festival, Þórhildur says matters of security should be left to security guards, and that it would be better for everyone involved if searches were done upon entry, after which festivalgoers could roam the premises freely. “The police should only be there if summoned when, for example, a fight breaks out,” she says.

“The police shouldn’t spend so much energy on minor drug busts, as they have been proven not to impact drug users’ habits—instead they should focus on offering the populace reliable information,” Þórhildur says. She points to the efforts of the Dutch police, who recently issued public warnings about badly cut cocaine that was circulating the streets of Amsterdam.

“The Icelandic police did a great job the other day when they warned people about a dangerous batch of Superman ecstasy pills,” she says, “and they should aim to emphasise such efforts.” Information like that could help reduce accidental overdoses, promote greater responsibility for those who choose to take drugs, and encourage those seeking help to step forward instead of worrying if they’ll get into trouble for doing so.

Oh, and festivals would be more tolerable, both for drug users and the rest of us.


Snarrótin has arranged a free lecture for those interested in drug policy, with Damon Barrett, co-founder of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, at Lögberg on February 19 at 16:30.


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