What's in your packet?

Drug-testing could help keep people safe at festivals

22nd June 2018

Making drugs safer may seem an unusual goal for some. Why make drugs safer when we are trying to discourage people from their use? Surely we should be making it more difficult to obtain drugs and, when they are still obtained, send people to jail?

This has been the basic drug policy in Britain for many years. Possession of an illegal Class A drug, like MDMA, can be punished with up to seven years in prison with the possibility of an unlimited fine and possession of a Class B drug, like ketamine, can be punished with up to five years in prison with the possibility of an unlimited fine. We punish those who are found with illegal drugs, but not particularly harshly in comparison to the US, whose Federal Law punishes first-time marijuana possession with up to five years in prison and, depending on the amount of the drug possessed, it could reach a 40-year sentence. In comparison, UK police usually issue a warning or a £90 on-the-spot fine for marijuana possession.

Though the law is no different when you’re at a festival, the chances of it being enforced are. With scores of unsupervised teenagers attending festivals at which the booze is in full flow and drugs, typically, are not in short supply, you’ve a recipe for potential disaster.

Leeds Festival Campsite 📸 Tyler Matthias

There are many adverse effects of every drug, whether heroin or steroids, and, especially in the case of heroin, the detrimental health effects are a result of impure mixtures of the illicitly dealt drug. With so many people, many of them young, gathering at music festivals and casually taking Class A and B drugs, something must be done to ensure that the drugs our young people are consuming will be safe.

As evident to anyone who has attended a music festival, the law is not a sufficient deterrent for drug use. Police presence at events such as Boardmasters, V Fest and Leeds and Reading festivals are minimal once in the campsites or the arenas. The people police themselves.

As a result, The Loop, a non-profit, community interest company, began its mission to provide drug safety testing at festivals, nightclubs and various other events in 2013. A few major festivals, including Kendall Calling, Parklife, Secret Garden Party and Boomtown (Bestival will have drug testing this year), have taken this initiative in their stride by allowing The Loop to operate within their festivals, in an effort to reduce the harm posed by such a large concentration of casual drug use.

Drug users simply take a sample of their drug to The Loop tent, wait an hour or so for the results, and find out what really lurks inside their pills. The samples are destroyed once tested. On The Loop website, there are testimonies from health experts, police and drug policy experts.

Paul Bunt, Boomtown crime and drug manager, praised the work of on-site drug testing: “Real-time analysis came to the fore when a particularly dangerous substance was identified, which enabled both The Loop and Boomtown to publish harm reduction alerts to all those at the festival, which I truly believe was responsible for keeping those negatively impacted by the drug so low in number.

Last year, Melvin Benn, the managing director of Festival Republic, advocated for the implementation of drug-testing. This was significant because Festival Republic organise Leeds and Reading Festival, Latitude Festival and V Festival, among other large events. BBC Newsbeat reported last year that Mr Benn was waiting for confirmation of support from the West Yorkshire Police and the National Police Chief’s Council for approval. However, Mr Benn appears to have completely reversed his decision once the time came to act on his promises.

The Independent reported that Mr Benn had changed his decision because he now believed that drug testing was misleading and that it “takes no account of how many he or she will take, whether the person will mix it with other drugs or alcohol and nor does it give you any indicator of the receptiveness of a person’s body to that drug”.

While this may be true, cancelling plans for drug testing is short-sighted. Harry Shapiro, journalist, advocate for drug testing and writer who has written much about drugs, including his book Shooting stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies, responds with, “My view is that nobody has suggested this as some fail safe intervention. You will never be able to prove if testing saves lives, but the point is that if people choose to use drugs then I don’t see why they shouldn’t have access to information that makes their choice a bit more informed.”

Education is the key to reducing drug use, whether it is days before or hours before the time comes to party

This sums up the virtue of drug testing at festivals: it is all about giving those who choose to take drugs the relevant information about them, thereby giving more control over the effects of the drug — how much to take or whether to take them at all. As Melvin Benn points out, dosage and drug mixing are not taken into account. But, this ignores the fact that humans are autonomous and, given the advice they receive post-sample examination, they should be able to make the decision about dosage and mixing themselves.

A vital level of The Loop festival drug testing is that advice about whether to take the drug or not is given along with the information about its content. If someone has brought an illegal drug to a festival, odds are that they’re going to take it. At this point, it is only responsible to allow said drug user to find out what is in their drugs. Reducing risk is the driving force behind support for drug testing at large social events. Had Festival Republic and Melvin Benn been able to follow through with Mr Benn’s initiative to implement drug testing this year, thousands of festival goers from Leeds Festival to V Festival would be able to gain more knowledge about the drugs they are going to consume. Education is the key to reducing drug use, whether it is days before or hours before the time comes to party. By keeping drug users ignorant of their product, more lives only will be at risk.

22nd June 2018