Why Festivals Aren't Doing More to Keep Drug Users Safe
Some festivals are doing all they possibly can to reduce the harm from drugs; others, not so much.
Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo
A fortnight ago, two young adults died from MDMA-related causes at Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth. A week later, Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn seemingly declared his opposition to harm reduction organisation The Loop's front-of-house drug testing at festivals.
Speaking to The Independent, Benn was quoted as saying: "Front of house testing sounds perfect, but has the ability to mislead, I fear. Determining to a punter that a drug is in the 'normal boundaries of what a drug should be' 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."
For everyone who's cheered on The Loop from the sidelines as they attempt to keep drug users as safe as possible, it was a startling statement to hear. But should we be critical of Benn – head of the company that stages Reading and Leeds, Latitude and Download, among others – after he openly supported The Loop's work last summer? And what about the organisers of the many other festivals that haven't trialled The Loop's pioneering testing?
"To have two fatalities early on in the season has been a huge wake-up call," says Jon Drape, director of Broadwick Live, which stages festivals including Festival No.6, Field Day, Kendal Calling, Standon Calling and South West Four. As it stands, only Kendal Calling has confirmed testing for this summer, but Drape says that four "or possibly five" festivals in Broadwick Live's stable are in talks about implementing The Loop's testing later in the summer.
The problem with getting the testing onsite is that – though it might seem a no-brainer to anyone with an empathic bone in their body – there are seemingly endless curls of red tape to cut through. "There's no guidance or approval from the Home Office, so it means you have to go on a local journey with local stakeholders, like police and councillors," says Drape.
Dr Henry Fisher, policy director of Volteface and senior chemist at The Loop, agrees.
"The Loop have a good reputation, but you need to build up relationships and trust for our service," he says. "This takes time and lots of meetings. Councils are also more nervous because they're people that have to be re-elected. There's been festivals that have wanted The Loop's testing for years, but there's been a single member of the council in that area who vetoed it."
Kendal Calling was one of the first adoptees of the onsite testing, in 2016, after the tragic death of 18-year-old Christian Pay and the hospitalisation of four others in 2015. Drape was heavily involved in the process, and points to the financial support from the local Cumbrian police constabulary as key in getting The Loop onsite. "When something like this happens, obviously you're dealing with the tragedy itself," he says. "But the knock-on effect is huge: on police operations, security, onsite welfare. We had a number of people in hospital, and their intensive care units had no beds left. After this, the Cumbrian police asked us what the options were. The Loop's testing came to the table, and that's why they co-funded it."
The testing itself isn't cheap – at the lower end of five figures, depending on festival size and requirements – which puts many smaller events off. However, both Drape and Fisher suggest that the appetite for drugs testing among organisers (especially independent festivals or those that are independently-minded) is strong. Sadly, as we have seen, this doesn't translate to the commercial behemoths that are able to drop £500,000 on a Kings of Leon headlining slot. Again.
Upon request for comment, Festival Republic said: "Our festival goers' safety is our number one priority – and we will be providing back of house testing at events which will offer the same analysis without the assumption that you have a 'safe drug’. There are no safe illegal drugs. The back of house testing at events gives us live information on what is in circulation onsite, to send full onsite warnings without commenting to individuals about what they are taking."
They also said that money is not the prevailing issue: "FOH (front-of-house) testing doesn't cost much more than back of house testing. This is not a money decision. Of course we would spend money on this if we thought this would solve an issue, but it's more complicated than that."
Festival Republic is also trialling "safe hubs" at Reading and Leeds, staffed by drugs advisory workers, where festival goers can go for advice and assistance.
Glastonbury failed to respond to questions about harm reduction initiatives, while AEG – organiser of events like All Points East in London and Coachella in America – declined to comment. The only larger festival to reply was the stoutly independent Bestival, which experienced its own tragedy last year, when 25-year old Louella Fletcher-Michie died after taking a cocktail of 2C-P, ketamine and MDMA, and has confirmed The Loop onsite for 2018.
A spokesperson said: "We would like to reiterate that Bestival strongly advises festival goers to avoid taking any illegal substances. However, harm reduction and customer welfare are our priorities, so we have made the decision to bring The Loop onboard to offer drug safety testing onsite, giving people the opportunity to make informed choices."
Katy McLeod is the co-founder of Chill Welfare, a charity that runs and staffs festival welfare tents across the country. "A lot of festivals still don't even provide any more than the most basic of welfare provisions, as it's still not a legal requirement and more of a 'nice-to-have'," she says. "I've personally been to many festivals where the welfare provision is a sterile tent, with a map, a jug of water and two bored-looking staff. This has to change."
Chill Welfare's crisis intervention stats show that 18 to 21-year-olds are the most likely to get into trauma at festivals, and Katy says that onsite testing captures a "whole audience who would never engage with a drug service otherwise".
Ultimately, it's not the organisers themselves, but those in government who have the final say on whether onsite testing is allowed at festivals in their jurisdiction. However, festival organisers can push their local councils. They can be pioneers. And in many ways, they already are: that this testing even exists in a country led by a Prime Minister who still believes in the war on drugs is a credit to the industry. But they need to be braver. They need to think with their hearts rather than their wallets.