Make no mistake, that MDMA you took over the weekened was definitely cut with something. It could be mephedrone, Pro Plus, or glass—but there's no real way of knowing in advance, because you got it off a friend who got it off a friend who knows someone called "Clive." Mixing drugs is a tale as old as time, but deregulation means that popular drugs can easily be cut or replaced entirely with substances ranging from powdered milk to rat poison. Unsurprisingly, this practice has led to drug-related deaths at music festivals in particular becoming commonplace worldwide.
Police are currently investigating two possible drug-related deaths at T In The Park this year, the second night of Buenos Aires' festival Time Warp was canceled after five drug related deaths, and an unknown drug circulating at Sunset Music Festival in Tampa, Florida, killed two people and landed another 57 in hospital. And that's just this summer so far.
In an attempt to prevent things like this from happening, American organization The Bunk Police have previously hit up a few festivals hoping to hand out test-kits to festival-goers so they could check what exactly they were going to be taking. However, festivals wouldn't let them in because of a piece of (US) legislation called the Rave Act passed in 2003, which states that venue owners and concert promoters aren’t allowed to have drugs taken at their festival because it will be interpreted as them providing a venue for drug use. This led to What's In My Baggie?—a 2014 documentary about the rise of misrepresented substances, as well as a critique of ineffective drug policy. Fast forward two years later, and Secret Garden Party has become the first UK festival to offer a free drug testing service.
This weekend, festival-goers were offered the service as part of a ten minute package of health and safety advice provided by The Loop—an organization that conducts forensic testing of drugs at festivals and nightclubs and offers associated welfare support. Over 80 substances of concern were tested during the first day and a half of Secret Garden Party and multiple samples had their contents misrepresented—including anti-malaria tablets sold as ketamine, and ammonium sulphate sold as MDMA.
Speaking from the festival site on Sunday morning, Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation which was instrumental in negotiating the testing facility with local authorities, said: “Around a quarter of people who brought in their drugs then asked us to dispose of them when they discovered that they had been mis-sold or were duds. We were taking dangerous substances out of circulation.”
According to Rolles, bringing free drug testing to more events in the UK will depend on the agreement of local police and councils. The partnership between Cambridgeshire police, local public health authorities and the Secret Garden Party organisers had been several years in the making.
“Until the laws are reformed, testing and encouraging safer drug use is the least we can do," he says, "We hope this groundbreaking service becomes the norm for all such events. It is now up to others to follow, to protect the health and safety of their customers. In truth it would be negligent for them not to.”
As Nixon's legacy shows—the "war on drugs" is irrelevant. Drugs aren't going anywhere, so we may as well be working with services that help keep people safe—or, at the very least, give weekend hedonists the opportunity to find out whether they'll be tripping on ecstasy or worming tablets at their festival of choice. Secret Garden Party isn't the first ever festival to offer free drug testing—it's already commonplace in the Netherlands and Canada's Evolve Festival brought it into effect last year (although it was almost forced to cancel for doing so after their liability insurance pulled out)—but it does set a forward-thinking precedent for future events in the UK.
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