New research published today indicates that significant numbers of people who use drug checking services at UK festivals have reported ongoing behavioural change when using illegal substances.
At three UK festivals in 2017, 1,482 people checked their drugs for strength and purity using the free service delivered by a UK-based NGO called The Loop. As well as having your drugs tested, the service includes a 15-minute harm reduction-focused consultation. Of 130 users who answered a follow-up questionnaire three months later, nearly two-thirds reported that this brief intervention has made a positive impact on the way they use drugs.
“This study sheds light on the decision-making process for drug users,” says Fiona Measham, co-author of the research and co-founder of The Loop. “We can see that, by and large, people are considered and careful. It really challenges some of the biggest stereotypes about drug users and young adults.”
Other standout findings were that 32.3 percent of respondents said they were more careful with poly-drug use, 26.8 percent were now less likely to buy drugs from strangers and 19.7 percent continued to use smaller doses. While these numbers represent a minority – albeit a significant one – overall, just 7.9 percent said their experience had no impact whatsoever on their drug-taking choices since.
The Loop first conducted their drug checking service at Secret Garden Party in 2016, in the wake of MDMA and ecstasy-related deaths rising from 13 in 2011 to 63 people that year. Published results from this pilot study focused on onsite findings – notably that one in five festival goers were sold a different drug to what they believed they were buying, and that the same amount discarded their drugs following the testing.
Freddie Fellowes, founder of the now-defunct Secret Garden Party, told VICE World News, “The Loop represented the only positive advance in harm reduction I saw in the whole 15 years of running the festival. It cut hospital admissions and prevented potentially fatal misadventure.”
Nevertheless, Measham says they are constantly battling sceptical decision-makers – despite recent drug-related deaths at festivals including Mutiny, Bestival, Reading and Leeds. Melvin Benn – head of Festival Republic, which runs the Reading and Leeds festivals – said he was “pretty certain” that those events would have The Loop’s drug-testing onsite in 2017, before backtracking after backlash from anti-drug campaigners.
Then, only last month, a Parliamentary committee meeting on the future of music festivals discussed the government’s current position on The Loop’s drug checking service. MP Caroline Dinenage, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, doubted its efficacy in the face of UK festival goers’ penchant for poly-drug use, saying that her “big concern is that this form of testing that is being suggested is rendered useless by combining one substance with another. Virtually all deaths … are a combination of substances.”
Dinenage went on to say, “I am also worried about how an illegal illicit drug being deemed as safe will impact on people’s regard for it. The government’s position on this is very clear: no illicit drug can be assumed to be safe.”
Measham says, “The Loop never state that a drug is ‘safe’ – we simply help young people make more informed decisions that could potentially save their lives. The implications [from this new research] are that people will use the information if they’re given it – whether that’s information about poly-drug use, lower dosing or broader harm reduction messaging from our team of healthcare professionals.”
Just 3.6 percent of those who took the survey said they had discussed substance use with a healthcare professional before. The results suggest this informal chat with one of The Loop’s team of nurses, psychiatrists and drug workers could help to create a new culture of drug related self-care; 41 percent now look online for drug alerts, 49 percent try to find out more about substances and 67 percent say they are now more familiar with the term and concept of “staying safe on the sesh”.
“The Loop’s harm reduction approach is fantastic… I particularly loved the chat after the drugs had been tested,” said one anonymous user of the service. “It was really refreshing to be able to talk confidentially and in an unbiased way about any queries or questions I had – not just about my sample, but drugs advice in general.”
Countries like The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal have long-standing recreational drug checking services, and Measham’s research mirrors that recently conducted by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health; 68 percent of festival goers reported behavioural change after trying the drug checking service presented by Know Your Stuff NZ.
One of the conclusions of the government-sponsored report was that “there is no evidence that drug checking increases drug use or encourages those who do not use illegal drugs to begin using them. Objections to drug checking appear to be based on moral assertions about the use of illegal drugs and are not supported by the research evidence.”
So what now for The Loop? Until now, they have been part of a growing grey area in UK drug policy – where local police forces enforce progressive drug policies that aren’t enshrined in national law, and blind eyes are turned to Peter Krykant’s rogue drugs consumption room.
“This study is a compelling component into the evolving international evidence base for drug safety testing,” says Jason Kew, Detective Chief Inspector of the Thames Valley Police. “This approach isn’t about acquiescing or normalising drug use, this is about proactive harm reduction, and it’s achieving positive results. A single drug-related death is one too many.”