Here's How We Reduce Drug Related Deaths at Music Festivals this Summer

The attitude towards drug-taking at our festivals and in our clubs needs to start being less about crime prevention and more about harm reduction.

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21 January 2016, 1:05pm

For the next few weeks, we'll be running pieces about what 2016 holds for the UK music scene: which artists possess the power to make it tick, what scenes are approaching boiling point, and what issues we need to fix before we can move forward. You can find all the content so far, right here.

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Last summer, I went to Bestival on the Isle of Wight for VICE, and I spent a couple of days stumbling around the colourful campsites asking teenagers to hand over whatever pills and powders they had stashed in their bum bags. I’d brought a selection of home testing kits, freely available to buy online. After the success of documentaries like What’s In My Baggie, I wanted to see how much festival-goers in the UK really knew about what they were taking.

What I discovered was pretty alarming. Of the 35 batches I tested, there were a whole host of unexpected chemicals hidden away. I found “cocaine” with high levels of Levamisole, a veterinary medicine that has a rare but potential side effect of suppressing our white blood cell production and making our skin rot, and pills with dangerous levels of PMA – a stronger, more toxic chemical than MDMA, that may be responsible for more than 100 UK deaths. One kid was also popping Rennie’s thinking they were E, poor lad.

It wasn’t just the shoddy gear that grabbed my attention, but also how receptive and interested my human guinea pigs were in finding out more about their supply. I conducted basic tests for purity, revealing whether any of the most prominent cutting agents were present. But I'm no scientist, and often I couldn’t answer the questions being asked of me about the relative safety of ingesting what we had found.

According to a Guardian poll from 2014, at least a third of 16-24 year olds have taken illegal substances, and users in this age bracket are the most likely to take drugs in an out-of-home, social environment. And there I was, with basic kits and absolutely fuck all experience, being asked for drugs advice by teenagers, desperate to learn more about what was hiding inside their baggies. It felt like a stark reminder of how broken Britain's approach to drugs education is, that a stranger on a comedown dishing out information from the back of test packets and via intermittent 3G was the best they could expect. We’re being let down, and it’s dangerous.

You only need to look at events in Australia last month to see the devastation that a concoction of dodgy pills and poor education can cause. A 19-year-old boy died at the Adelaide leg of the Stereosonic music festival back in December, after taking a dubious pill. The news came just a week after Sylvia Choi, a 25-year-old pharmacist, died taking pills at the festival’s Sydney event. At the Brisbane event, there were twenty overdose cases, despite extra security. It's unknown whether any of the events are connected.

Adriana Buccianti, whose son Daniel died at an Australian music festival in 2012, has started a petition to get testing introduced at festivals in Oz. “My son made a mistake in taking a drug. It wasn't what he thought it was, and it killed him,” she wrote. “Doctors and experts are saying Australian festivals need to urgently introduce 'drug checking services' to stop more deaths,” she says. Over in America, the Bunk Police have been working hard, even risking prison, to introduce drug testing at festivals, with limited success. But here in the UK, it has been an arduous process.

Professor Fiona Measham is a criminologist at Durham University, and founder of charity The Loop. After shadowing the police at Glastonbury, where the force conduct low-level testing for their own investigations, Measham decided The Loop would invest in their own hardware, to conduct tests as part of harm prevention work. “We got ours just over 18 months ago,” Measham tells me, singing the praises of her portable testing machine, coming in at a “moderately expensive” £20-£25,000.

“The machine is a laser that shines through a substance and maps how the light passes inside it. It produces a unique footprint for that spectra, and matching the findings to a database allows us to ascertain what a substance is.”

Samples end up with Fiona through a variety of routes: usually whatever is nabbed by security on entry, confiscated by police, and presumably venue staff too. Paramedics and welfare volunteers can also pass up substances when they have concerns. Measham has witnessed first-hand the impact that testing like this can have on our safety, reeling off examples of where she believes she, and her volunteers, have been able to seriously reduce the harm that could have been caused.

At a Warehouse Project night in Manchester in December 2014, a group of attendees were hospitalised after taking what they believed to be ketamine. Paramedics could see those who’d taken it were turning agitated and aggressive, an effect that this infamous horse tranquiliser isn’t known for producing. “Within fifteen minutes we could test, and work out that the substance was methoxetamine [also known as MXE and rhino ket], an entirely different drug.”

Not only could these results be passed to medics, but a warning can be instantly put out across social media, informing attendees that dealer’s are mis-selling these drugs in that area. “Hopefully it informs people,” says Measham, “they’ll then know the effects are stronger and longer lasting. We’d hope people will respond either by not taking it, or taking smaller amounts.” Either way, at least people know what they’re shoving in their septum.

However testing like this is still extremely limited across the UK, and it’s not hard to see why. Under the current legislation, the police need to be involved in testing, else people on Measham’s team walking around with baggies brimming with Class A’s might well get done for possession. Even with the various legal hurdles navigated (Measham works closely with lawyers to ensure her team are always as protected as possible), British festivals have so far seemed reluctant to role out these methods.

Keen to find out why, I got in touch with five major UK festivals. While organisers were happy to chat anonymously, very few were willing to publicly talk about drug testing at their sites. “We really do think it’s a good idea, and would love to be part of campaigning on this, but the situation with the police and authorities in our area means it’s just too risky right now,” one told me, a sentiment shared by most of the big shot promoters who I got talking to.

Essentially, organisers are concerned that this type of testing could be construed as admittance to police that illegal activities are taking place on site, thus putting their prized licences in danger. The government are also making it pretty tough. Mike Penning, the Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims, told me that the government, “have no plans to introduce testing centres for illegal drugs”.

"This government's approach to drugs remains clear,” he explained, “we must help individuals who are dependent through treatment and wider recovery support, as well as protecting people by stopping the supply of drugs and tackling the organised crime that is associated with them.” The email I received also reiterated that the testing that I was asking about could see people prosecuted under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

I approached the National Police Chief’s Council, asking what the guidance was nationally for forces, but I’ve still not heard back. The absurdity of continually emailing senior police officers, begging them for a couple of lines for my article about drugs, was seemingly lost on them. When this is the Government's approach, you can see why UK festivals might be erring on the side of caution. The problem is, it’s costing lives, and it’s time that we addressed this problem proactively, and did something about it.

Thankfully, some state agencies are taking a less reckless approach to this issue, and leading the way are Greater Manchester Police. For two days in June, 70,000 of us descend on Manchester for Parklife, desperate to kick off a summer of festivals and debauchery by getting off our tits and writhing about in a park in Prestwich. For Chief Inspector Gary Simpson of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), responsible for policing the festival, it presents a challenge.

“Over the years I’ve worked with the organisers of Parklife,” Simpson tells me down the phone. “Fiona Measham approached us alongside Parklife asking if we would support, as part of our drug strategy, to analyse and test drugs on site, of drugs that were either surrendered, confiscated, or found by medical staff.” He said yes. “We get fast time testing - for results on controlled substances and legal highs - of the dangers posed for people’s health,” Simpson continued. “We’re here to prevent crime, but as a public organisation we also need to reduce harm.”

And that’s the key here, approaching the recreational UK drugs issue from an angle of preventing harm rather than focusing entirely on preventing crime. On the question of whether this tactic was working, Simpson explained that there’s been “lots of research on the success”, showing a reduction in drugs related medical incidents over the years, although he couldn’t say it had prevented people taking drugs. “All I know is,” he tells me, “if my son or daughter was thinking of taking a drug, and I knew that authorities are working hard to reduce the risk of them coming to harm, I would be really pleased.”

I decided to ask Simpson about whether this type of testing could be taken one step further. While Parklife has so far experimented with testing via the police, paramedics etc., in much of Europe normal members of the public can offer up a sample of their baggy themselves for anonymous checking. Through a simple mechanism, samples can be dropped in a bin, attached to a unique ID number, and later you can return to get advice and results from a trained drug counsellor. Testing like this already takes place at festivals and nightclubs in Spain (Energycontrol), Switzerland (Saftrparties), and Austria (Checkit!).

“It’s complex,” begins Simpson, “and there’s big ethical dilemmas for us as a service. We don’t want to support individuals being encouraged to take drugs, but conversely it may well stop people taking drugs that could potentially kill them.”

Measham’s charity asked Simpson and his team if they would be allowed to conduct this type of individual testing back in 2015. The request was taken to the GMP Ethics Committee, which has oversight on these decisions. The members fed back that yes, they thought the public would support their involvement in the initiative.

It didn’t happen in 2015 for operational reasons, but Simpson expects the request to be made again in 2016. If it were to go ahead, they’d be the first in the UK to do so. And too fucking right. It’s this type of testing that can be done before someone’s clocked on that their batch is dodgy, meaning trained counsellors can chat to us when we’re not already fucked off our nut.

Because this is the thing about introducing proper drugs testing that is often overlooked by authorities: it’s more than just a chance to reveal impurity, it’s a hook that gets us engaged with wider drugs services, and talking to sources of advice and counsel, people who can not only give us advice but also make us fully aware of the side effects and consequences. Let’s be honest, do any of us really check Frank when we’re about to bosh a line? Arriving at a festival, who darts over to the welfare tent to ask about the dangers of mixing methedrone, pills and three cans of Special Brew? Nobody.

But, we all want to know what's inside the drugs we're taking. Regardless of the outcome, we’d find ourselves sat in front of an expert, forced to confront the realities of what's inside the drugs that we take. Testing is the bait that allows professionals to reel us in.

Fred Fellowes is the man behind Secret Garden Party, and he’s currently working with Profesor Measham on plans to shake up the harm prevention work done at the festival. “The care and welfare of your audience and crew are your paramount responsibility. If you can't ensure that you are doing everything possible towards that end, then you are falling short,” he says.

Critics say this type of testing encourages us to take illegal drugs, giving users the green light that a substance is pure, dangerously and falsely suggesting that a substance is therefore safe. Sure, just telling people they’ve got some top notch MDMA in isolation might encourage them to use more, but nobody I’ve spoken to has suggested this is a strategy. Simpson, Measham, Fred, and all those I spoke to off the record aren’t naïve. Of course, just going around, like I did at Bestival, and offering (in my case, with little expertise) to test a batch of powders for purity won’t stop people getting hurt.

They also aren’t arguing for the decriminalisation of possession and supply of controlled substances. Each made it clear to me that they would expect security to enforce searches, and law enforcement to keep on tracking down suppliers. But while drugs are a rife reality of British youth, which they are, authorities must take seriously their responsibilities to keep us safe.

Ultimately we need a major rethink on drug laws in this country. Policy makers sticking fingers in their ears, jumping up and down with their eyes closed shouting “everything is fine”, a sensation most recreational drug users know all too well, just isn’t working. Music festivals, especially, present a range of dynamics that mean testing is even more in need than usual. Where did you take your first pill? It was probably a festival, and you may well have nabbed it from a bloke in a bucket hat who introduced himself as Rusty Dave. First time users, purchasing unmarked substances from unknown suppliers, is dangerous, and a potentially lethal combination.

In 2015, people died from taking drugs at UK festivals; the tragic death of Christian Pay, 18, at Kendall Calling was just another horrific example. According to Cumbria Police, Christian died of “substance abuse”, having taken three Adidas pills with his mates. The coroner’s inquest into Christian’s death is still on-going, and it’s unclear whether the pills he took had something unexpected in, or whether an MDMA overdose was the cause of death.

Testing may well have prevented this tragedy and others, regardless of the cause. If the pill was in fact a more dangerous compound, testing will have revealed it, and if it turned out to be pure, Christian would still have had contact with a drugs counsellor, who could have explained the need for controlled dosages and the risks his actions might present, before he’d even chosen to take it.

This year must see us sort our shit out when it comes to drugs testing at music events. If we don’t, people will continue to die or cause serious damage to themselves, because of this Russian roulette system we find ourselves in. Festival organisers, researchers, and police officers who have been resolutely testing drugs, despite opposition from central Government, need to continue, but undoubtedly we have to do more to support them. Promoters and local authorities are still scared to stick their necks out for the threat of prosecution, simply for making us safer.

This isn’t a solution to the UK’s ridiculous drug laws, it would be naive to suggest that it was. But implemented properly, as all the evidence shows, we can at least ensure we’re better informed. Young people will continue to do drugs at music festivals and clubnights, as they have done right from the start. It's about time the Government, and those who profit from our attendance, do all they can to make us safe.

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