A case for Festival Drug Testing Ahead of May’s PPC Elections

by Michael Wakelyn-Green


Michael Wakelyn-Green is a Drug Policy Campaigner, Drug & Alcohol Recovery Specialist, and South East Ambassador for the LCDPR.

With Lockdown ending mid-June (fingers-crossed), it means many UK festivals will occur this summer. Almost instantly following the news, tickets for the largest festivals in the UK sold-out (I know this because I tried to buy a few!) presumably to the over 5 million festival goers in 2019, who have been starved of a festival during the pandemic.

Internationally and in the UK, festival goers self-report higher levels of illicit drug consumption than the general population. I doubt this summer will be any different, if not worse. Festival attendance has also increased over the past decade, and according to the Royal Society for Public Health, so too have festival drug-related deaths. Inevitably during the summer are stories in national and local news, of the tragic drug-related deaths of children and young adults at UK festivals. These articles are often accompanied with quotes from friends and family mourning their loved ones and expressing how their lives are damaged forever. These stories beg the question “What can be done to reduce these deaths?”

Onsite festival drug testing is an innovative solution new to the UK, with a handful of festivals like Boomtown in Hampshire piloting it in recent years. The charity “The Loop” provide drug testing services, and further in-house harm-reduction education and advice to festival goers. These types of services are used across the world: Australia, Canada, Portugal (who decriminalised personal drug use in 2001), Switzerland, and the Netherlands (who also do state-funded drug testing outside of festivals) amongst others. The government of New Zealand recently changed legislation, removing festival drug testing from a “legal grey zone” where it has resided since 2014. Legal penalties associated with possession laws have been removed, making the drug testing process more efficient. The Irish government have also recently funded drug testing pilots for their festivals this summer. So, what is it, and why are other countries pioneering it?

Onsite festival drug testing services provide a safe, and confidential place for festival goers to get drugs they smuggled into or bought at the festival, tested by trained professionals (most of which volunteer their time). The contents of Illicit drugs are analysed using specialist equipment, letting festival goers make informed decisions about whether to consume their drugs, or dispose of them in anonymous amnesty bins.

A UK study found that 1 in 5 people who test their drug using these services, end up disposing of them. Just shy of half said they’d reduce their drug consumption and take more care. This is due to the harm-reduction education and advice provided by service staff, who inform people of the dangers and nuances of drug consumption. This education is essential not just at festivals, but in schools, and in Police Drug Diversion schemes (which is part of my day-job!).

The biggest factor in drug disposal is that people have been miss-sold drugs, and found via the testing process: that it wasn’t the intended substance at all, was vastly more powerful than needed (increasing overdose risk), or had been adulterated with a cocktail of other ingredients – many of which harmful. Examples of this include MDMA tabs made entirely of concrete, or mixed with “n-ethylpentylone”, a long-lasting cathinone that can cause anxiety, paranoia, insomnia and psychosis – certainly a slight buzzkill!

Additionally, drug testing drastically decreases the amount of nonfatal hospital admissions at festivals. At the Cambridgeshire “Secret Garden Party” in 2016, new festival drug testing services helped reduce hospital drug-related admissions to 1, compared to 19 the previous year without (a 95% reduction). Internationally, similar evidence is consistent. This is good for drug consumers, their families, but also an economic benefit, as these preventative services help avoid more serious and costly health problems, during and after the festival.

Drug alerts are also created for dangerous drugs identified by the testing services. These are displayed across the event for festival goers to see, and posted on the festival’s social media pages, maximising the dissemination of harm reduction information to festival goers (and parents!).

These facilities also assist security and policing intelligence in and outside the festival, as they better detect the types of drugs present at the festival, alongside tracking the drugs available/emerging on the wider illicit market. This should be considered by sceptics, and those voting in the upcoming Police and Crime commissioners’ elections. If you want to help the police and ambulance services as much as possible, you should support this policy.

The most frequently heard argument against festival drug testing, is that these services “legitimise” and encourage more people to experiment with drugs, by giving them a false sense of safety.

We have had strict prohibitionists UK drug laws for more than half a century, and it has done nothing to cut organised crime, or deter drug use (according to the government’s own Science and Technology Committee). People have and will continue to use drugs. Whether drug testing facilities are present or not, people (especially risk-taking young people) will consume them. We must be pragmatic and realistic with our solutions rather than hold on to tried, tested, and failed 50-year-old policies (The Misuse of Drugs Act was enacted in 1971). We must learn from the failure of the “War on Drugs” and improve.

Some may also argue that to reduce festival drug-related death, festivals must reduce the number of drugs entering initially, meaning increased security and enhanced checks. Although this does seem to be the “common sense” approach, it’s not full proof.

Firstly, it would be a logistical nightmare to do enhanced checks on all festival goers. Organisers would need to hire lots more security (not all security are “good guys”, some are dealing themselves!), and admittance queues would be far longer, frustrating many suffering heat-stroke in the summer sun. Drugs manage to get into prisons – they will inevitably get into festivals.

Secondly, if security act as a deterrent, or manage to seize drugs from festival goers, it won’t necessarily stop people trying to attain drugs once in the festival. Studies have indicated that drugs bought at festivals are far more likely to be miss-sold to consumers, and therefore far more dangerous. Festival goers bringing in their own drugs, are more likely to have sampled their drugs outside of the festival, better understanding their effects. They’re likely to have bought from their regular dealer, creating a bit of accountability (still not much) on the dealer, and potentially evidence back to them if something were to go wrong. The nature of passing trade at festivals, means there is no accountability on opportunistic dealers. The unintended consequence of seizing drugs from festival goers, is that it increases the market for dodgy dealers who have evaded security (or are part of security). Despite the best intention of more security, it can make things worse.

Mutiny festival in Hampshire (now renamed to “South Central”) was called off half-way through the 2018 festival, due to two overdose deaths: 18-year-old Georgia Jones, and 20-year-old Tommy Cowan (who was a father to a one-year-old). They died due to consuming super-strength MDMA. Many of my student friends went to the festival as I lived in Portsmouth at the time; I remember the news vividly and how upset it made me.

Drug testing was not available at Mutiny 2018, nor was there adequate provision of water in the hot weather (except price-gouging vendors selling bottled water for £2.50-£3.50). If drug testing and proper provisions were available, would these deaths had occurred? Would they have tested their drugs before taking them, finding out they were toxic? Perhaps they may have been part of the 1 in 5 people to throw their drugs away. This story is repeated at festivals across the UK every year.

As a country we must become more pragmatic and realistic on the topic of drugs; doing so would allow us to start remedying many social ills. The ill of festival drugs-deaths is one we can greatly mitigate if we adopted an evidence-based approach to this problem. Festival drug testing services help prevent the needless death of predominately young people, and avert the tragedy inflicted on their families. If that wasn’t enough, they support the police in tackling organised crime, alongside reducing the economic cost of hospitalisations and death.

Mandatory festival drug testing is a simple policy with noble goals, which is proven to have an impact on the safety of people enjoying festivals in the UK and abroad. It is something that everyone across the political spectrum can – and should – get behind.

Hampshire has the highest number of festivals, and festival goers in the UK outside of London. This fact is not lost on Tony Bunday, the PCC candidate for Hampshire, who supports festival drug testing, and a wider evidence-based approach to Drugs. Tony has vast experience in youth offending, drug & alcohol, and mental health services. He has also directed his own events company organising local festivals.

Michael Wakelyn-Green is a Drug Policy Campaigner, Drug & Alcohol Recovery Specialist, and South East Ambassador for the LCDPR. Tweets @MWakelynGreen

The Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, collaborating with Tony’s campaign are hosting an online event on Tuesday 27th of April at 19:30 over Zoom. If you would like to join our public meeting, please do sign-up here: https://us02web.zoom.us/w/89657054649?tk=xuXtCw9EzJ7RDyLzLaPNwcvb6vDRvTXQSV13YHTMuP4.DQIAAAAU3_oVuRZQcldsN2g0MVNoMlBlcUctNTJHUnJRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA&pwd=cUIvRTFWRFhFUmFkYWxZdXpvcmMvdz09

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