Lessons We Learned About Drugs This Festival Season

We spoke to three drug experts and welfare providers about what they noticed at the UK's festivals this summer.

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Aug 31 2018, 9:19am

Photo: Rachel Torres / Alamy Stock Photo

For many festival-goers, drugs are as intrinsic to the experience as developing a thin film of visible bacteria over their entire body. With 3.5 million people attending British festivals in 2016, and recent Home Office statistics suggesting that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds who have taken drugs in the last year (8.4 percent) is higher than for 12 years, it's safe to presume that many of our nation's youth got extremely loose in a field this summer.

To find out what's going on in the mouths and brains of festival gremlins across the UK, I spoke to some experts who have spent the summer on the frontline: Katy MacLeod of 24-hour welfare providers Chill Welfare; Guy Jones, Senior Scientist at The Loop and Technical Lead of Reagent Tests UK; and Oliver Trafford, Lead Practitioner of the UK's first dedicated festival mental health response team.

Here are the lessons they learned over the past few months.

The Loop warning about N-Ethylpentylone being found at a festival. Image via @WeAreTheLoopUK

N-Ethylpentylone is a menace to society

Scroll through The Loop's Twitter alerts for the season and you'll see N-Ethylpentylone was one of the most acute issues they faced. N-Ethylpentylone is a substituted cathinone frequently sold as "fake MDMA", with an appearance and effects that are, initially, broadly similar.

The real problems start when then the euphoric effects fade after a couple of hours and the user re-doses to chase those happy highs. N-Ethylpentylone is around three times stronger than MDMA and – from Kendal Calling to Boomtown – led to many festival-goers unwittingly having 36-hour (or more) trips fraught with genuinely terrifying-sounding paranoia and delusions.

"We had lads who thought they had sexually assaulted someone," says Ollie Trafford, who led a mental health response team at Boomtown. "With there being a lot of coverage of sexual attack at festivals this year, it kind of filters through with osmosis. They might hear something and it transfers to their own unconscious. Young people also thought gangs were following them with knives. Once it gets through into their subconscious, it's very hard to break. It's a horrible experience."

Mental health must be a key focus for festivals in 2019

Whereas festivals used to be pockets of escapism in which people could forget their problems for 72 hours, increasingly people are carrying them through the gates. "There was a huge increase in mental health issues this year," says Katy MacLeod of Chill Welfare. "We saw a lot of people with suicidal thoughts. In previous years you'd get the odd case of people saying they had these thoughts outside of the festival, but now we're seeing serious self-harm attempts onsite."

As ever, there's likely a mixture of causes, from the prevalence of the extreme anxiety-inducing N-Ethylpentylone to the ever-dubious influence of social media.

"A lot of it was really paranoid thinking about friends saying things, and social media delusions," says Katy. "Social media puts a long of pressure on young people, and we're definitely seeing social anxiety play out in festivals. People maybe hit it too hard or take something that wasn't what they thought it was. They don't sleep properly, and then it all comes together."

Katy's charity worked alongside Ollie Trafford’s mental health response team at Boomtown, which treated 150 people across the weekend. Ollie says the "majority" had taken drugs, and of them, 63 percent had pre-existing mental health problems. Although festivals themselves are clearly not to blame for the current fragile state of a nation, where one in four adults will suffer a mental health problem this year, they need to take responsibility for what happens on their watch.

Photo: VICE

People need to start taking cocaine sensibly

The presence of super-strength pills (250mg and above) remains the most consistent warning message that The Loop send out, with the advice to "start with quarter and regularly sip water". While cocaine isn't as prevalent among festival-goers, Guy Jones says a "significant minority" of the drugs they tested over the summer was cocaine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering street coke is the strongest its been in a decade, some people are taking too much and getting into trouble.

"We're seeing people experience negative side effects like severe anxiety or heart palpitations because they're not dosing properly," he explains. "When this happens they just assume the drug is adulterated, but often it's just a lot stronger than they're used to, and they're doing the same amount they would be normally."

Pub-grub fiends, beware.

The cainers are still caning it

There's a school of thought that today's more informed Generation Z aren't burning up their brains and livers quite like their forebears. Opinion is split on this. "I think it felt that way. There are certainly less drug-related casualties," says Guy Jones.

But while people are generally more aware of drug risks, Katy says there's still a subset for whom poly substance-related risk is a tantalising prospect. "It's rife, and can be from quite an informed audience who know things are risky and want to push the envelope. It wasn't uncommon for us to see someone that had taken crystal MDMA, ecstasy, ketamine, a little bIt of coke, possibly some amphetamine, nitrous oxide, alcohol and possibly cannabis."

People are looking out for their teammates

Macleod said there was increased evidence of peer support this year, both for friends and strangers in the fields. She credits the awareness work festivals are doing, and especially Boomtown's Respect campaign – encouraging respect for the community, yourself and the festival site – with having a hugely positive effect. "They put in the most prevention work and provisions I've ever seen at a festival," she said.

People are still buying drugs inside festivals

It’s obvious why people opt to buy drugs inside festivals: you don’t have the dry-mouth fear of facing down a sniffer dog with a bag of pingers in your socks. But, with our knowledge of drugs and the adulterants that can be present within them increasing, surely it's becoming evermore of a fool's errand?

According to Guy Jones, people who came to The Loop were a mix of those who'd bought them inside and had brought them with them. He told one story of a guy who came to see them: "He said that one of my rules was: 'I never buy in the arena. But then someone offered me cocaine which was £30 a gram. I couldn't say no." That "cocaine" was crushed-up chloroquine. Better known as malaria tablets. At least he got it tested.

@dhillierwrites

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