How the UK's Music Festivals Changed Their Tune On Drugs
After years of taking a zero tolerance policy towards drugs, some festivals are now allowing onsite testing so punters can check that what they're taking is safe.
This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
Volunteers at The Loop weren't sure that anyone would take them up on their offer. In July of last year, the drugs outreach organisation set up a nondescript white tent at Secret Garden Party and invited festival-goers to hand over samples of whatever illicit substances they had managed to smuggle through the gates. In return, they'd be told the true nature of whatever it was they were planning on taking, after The Loop's volunteers had forensically analysed the drugs.
This was the first time drugs testing had been offered to the public at a UK festival, so there were some doubts as to whether the public would be convinced. After all, under normal circumstances you'd never approach a total stranger and announce your intention to take a load of illegal drugs.
Still, over the course of the weekend, around 200 people gave it a go. The tests found ecstasy made of concrete and powdered malaria tablets masquerading as ketamine, among other undesirables. After receiving the results, nearly one in five people put their stash straight in the bin. As Fiona Measham, co-founder of The Loop, says: "People don't want to take shit drugs."
One week later, The Loop repeated the experiment with similar success at Kendal Calling. This summer, it expects to roll out drugs testing to ten UK festivals. Melvin Benn, managing director at Festival Republic, one of the UK's largest events promoters, confirmed earlier this year that testing would be offered at events including Reading and Leeds. "It's taken a long time and it won't be at every festival, but where we think there is a need to do it we will be doing it," he said.
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Anyone who's ever been to a festival knows that drugs are integral to the experience. For some, that means necking 12 pints of strawberry cider before midday and passing out with your head down a chemical toilet. For others, it means a spliff at the campsite and an ill-advised second gurner just as the sun's coming up. The unspoken agreement between the public, promoters and the police is that this is allowed to go on, just as long as no one acknowledges it.
This puts promoters in a tricky position. Taking drugs is an inherently risky proposition, so how do you keep people who are using drugs safe while everyone's pretending it's not happening?
"They are on a knife edge, really," says Measham, describing the balancing act involved in sticking to the law while trying to minimise drug risks. "They have to be following the law and they want to keep their licences." At the same time, "Everyone wants everyone to go home safely; a drug-related death onsite is an absolute tragedy for everyone who works at a festival."
Measham says there were six drug-related deaths at UK festivals last year. One of these was at Boomtown Fair. To date, like most other festivals, Boomtown has focused its efforts on preventing drugs reaching the site. This summer, however, it's trying a different approach. In the run-up to this year's event, the Boomtown team will be running a social media campaign to raise awareness of the risks associated with drugs, particularly those that are heightened in a festival environment. Drug workers will be stationed in the festival campsites. The Loop will be onsite to tell people exactly what they're planning on taking.
Anna Wade, communications manager at Boomtown, stresses that the festival will still be doing everything it can to prevent drugs being brought to the site. There will be a strict search policy, drugs amnesty bins, and anyone caught trying to bring drugs into the festival will face eviction. However, she says, "Despite everything we do, we're also really aware that drugs will get into the festival. We want to do everything in our power to keep people safe."
Evidence from Europe suggests this is the right approach. In Switzerland, where recreational drugs remain illegal but testing is widely available, there have been no deaths attributed to "party drugs" in the last seven years. Measham says there are UK promoters who have wanted to introduce drug testing for some time, but have been waiting for the right time to do – when they can be reasonably sure they won't be unfairly criticised. This summer, with ten festivals preparing to adopt the practice, there at least seems to be some safety in numbers.
Given that most recreational drugs remain illegal, one would expect the police to have something to say about all this. However, as unlikely as it sounds, they've played a key role in allowing this to happen. Drug testing at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling last year was only possible with the support of the local constabularies.
Measham says that, although the police are required to enforce the law, many officers have spent enough time at festivals to know a pragmatic approach is needed. "Everyone tries their best to stop drugs getting on site, but they do, and then the issue becomes one of reducing drugs-related harm," she says. "They are realistic."
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at the drugs charity Transform, echoes this view. "The police are not heartless bastards," he says. "You speak to police at events where young people have died and they are distraught and heartbroken. They don't want to be ringing up parents and saying, 'Your child has died.' It's often those police who are most determined to push forward these reforms because they just don't want to see that happen any more."
At a national level, the police are maintaining a cautious stance on drugs testing. The National Police Chiefs' Council lead for drugs, Commander Simon Bray, says it's up to individual forces to decide what's appropriate. "There has been no proposed national roll-out of drug testing at festivals," he says. "Before any type of drug testing could be endorsed locally it is vital that forces have a strong understanding of the implications on policing. Police could not support initiatives that do not comply with the law or that have unintended negative consequences."
With that in mind, there'll be plenty of people watching to see the outcome of The Loop's efforts this summer. Already, however, there are signs that its services will be rolled out even further; talks are taking place to offer a drugs testing facility to clubbers in Preston city centre later this year. For any promoters thinking of adopting a new approach to drugs, Measham has some advice. "Be brave," she says. "The climate is definitely changing."
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