"Trying to change government drug policy is like pissing in the wind," says Fiona Measham, backstage at the Cambridgeshire music festival Secret Garden Party.
As one of two founders of The Loop, an organisation formed in 2013 to increase the country's drugs harm reduction services, she would know. The Loop now works with festivals and nightclubs all over the country to provide advice and information to the UK's young recreational drug users, and government cooperation is hard to come by.
So today is a huge day for Measham, as The Loop are two days into their voluntary forensic drug testing at Secret Garden Party, the first initiative of its kind in the UK. In short, punters can have the content of their drugs tested, then decide if they want to keep them or bin them. It's something that's been in the works for over two years, planned with Fred Fellowes, the SGP organiser, Cambridgeshire police and the drug policy review charity, Transform Drug Policy.
"The thing that's particularly brilliant about this innovation is it's moving against the tide in a UK that's becoming increasingly oppressive. It's pure pragmatism. It's real, and it's progressive," says Steve Rolles of Transform, who is onsite during the festival and understandably thrilled. "I think the dam will burst and that this testing will become widespread very quickly. I hope, in a couple of years, it's not just seen as best practice, but maybe a licensing requirement."
For a country with a Prime Minister who, as Home Secretary, "filleted" (in the words of Nick Clegg) the 2014 Home Office drug policy review he pushed so hard for, it's a refreshing change.
Among the things Theresa May cut from the final report were the promotion of cannabis-based medicines and the implementation of a decriminalisation system similar to the one introduced in Portugal in 2001; a system that has seen a decline in drug use among 15-24 year olds, a decline in overdose deaths (to just 12 in 2012) and, perhaps most strikingly, a fall in new HIV infections from 1,002 in 2001 to just 56 in 2012. Still, no dice from TM. This year we've also seen the Psychoactive Substances Act, which banned the sale of anything that gets you within a merest zephyr of an alternate state (unless its a substance making the government a shitload of money in tax, like alcohol or nicotine, natch).
So how did something like this even see the light of day in Mother Theresa's Britain? To find out I speak to Laura Hunt, the Silver Commander of Cambridgeshire Police, who has been the police's driving force behind it all. She's been working with Secret Garden Party for over a decade.
"We have some very clear objectives – they are to protect the vulnerable and to attack criminality," she says. "For me, if you're safeguarding people that render themselves vulnerable because of their possible use of drink or drugs, then why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't I agree with something that might help stop a loss of life?"
She's very keen to stress that The Loop is working independently. Everyone's in cahoots and knows what the others are up to, and The Loop share depersonalised information about their findings in twice daily safety meetings. But there's no police presence in The Loop's tent and they've agreed not to swoop on anyone stepping out of it. Still, she makes it clear that drugs are very much illegal. "This 100 percent isn't a laissez-fair attitude," she attests. "As a police officer, an agent of the law, drugs possession and drugs supply are criminal offences, and we have to take a hard line. But I think they can co-exist."
The methodology of the testing itself is simple, at least from the punters' point of view. They spoon a tiny amount of their drugs into a plastic baggy, then toddle off to the bar for 20 minutes. In the meantime, the sample is taken out the back of The Loop's tent, where one of their volunteers tests it using a £25,000 gizmo called the Fourier Transform Infra-Red Spectrometer (but let's just call it "the machine").
The drugs are scanned by an infrared laser on the machine, which instantly feeds back the information into a computer. It runs tests for content and strength, giving the latter a rating out of 1,000. Twenty minutes later, the punter returns and, after giving information about their age, drug history, current state of intoxication and some other generalities – all anonymously; no one is ever asked their name – they are told what the machine has found out about their drugs. They're offered the choice of whether they want to keep their chemical wares, and given tacit, sympathetic advice about the drugs they've got.
On the Saturday afternoon they're given 125 samples to test, an amount Measham is "delighted with" (over the entire festival, they'd see just under 250). Some of the more revealing results are that a quarter of people hand their drugs back after testing; that crushed up malaria pills parading as ketamine are doing the rounds; and that, bizarrely, there are examples of concrete pellets being sold as pills. "That's bad drugs being taken out of circulation. It's pure evidence of a good outcome," says Rolles.
The first group of users I speak to are five boys and girls from Leeds, all aged between 21 and 24. They've got some pretty shady-looking MDMA that had made them all throw up the night before. "I got it from a friend of a friend. It's really strong, but a weird sandy colour," says one of the group, Sally.
It turns out their MDMA, despite being strong, has a high sugar content, hence the sandiness. There being nothing too sinister in the results, they decide to keep it, but say they will take it easy.
A 19-year-old guy tests his ketamine, saying, "I tried it last night but it was really chemically. I don't know if it was mixed with something so thought I would get this tested. This ketamine is from a friend of a friend. I'm not normally nervous about ket, but I had a bad batch in the week." Again, he keeps it and happily walks of towards the Dance Off stage.
One thing I'm curious about is whether or not there's a certain sub-section that simply won't want to know what's in their drugs, lest they don't like the information and feel impelled to hand them back in. To the non-hedonist this might sound incredibly foolhardy, but for the 20-year-old who's spend the last dregs of their pay on some pills they can't afford to replace, there's a twisted logic to it.
"There's a cultural mentality with the British to get as wrecked as possible. There's a lot of bravado, which is quite a scary thing," says Gemma, one of The Loop's volunteers. With this in mind, I ask a friend of mine if he wants to get his coke checked: "No," he answers. "I want to do it and I'd rather not know if it's bad."
I, however, do want to know what it's in the little baggie of MD I've brought, so hand it over. It's got a rating of 871, so pretty high end. Super strong MDMA and pills are the prevailing issue The Loop deal with, and they tell me to "start slow, dip it low" with it. As someone who normally waggles his finger in the baggy like an eight-year-old with a shiny pouch of Fizz Wizz, it lingers on my mind.
For the rest of the weekend, my friends and I are far less cavalier than normal. We give actual thought as to how we're feeling, how much we've dosed and when the last time we dosed was. I've still got the final hours of Suicide Tuesday to come, but as I write this I feel better, more lucid, than I ever have in a decade of post-festival Mondays. Harm reduction in action.
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