Meet the Woman Testing Your Drugs at This Summer's Festivals
"I'm a night person, always have been. There's an excitement about the night that I still feel: it's dark, it's dangerous and it's fun. I have no interest in the morning at all. Morning people are dull as ditchwater."
Fiona Measham has nightlife in her bones, and it's driving her mission to help the UK's partygoers use drugs as safely as possible. In 2013, Measham – along with drum 'n' bass DJ Wilf Gregory – founded the drugs harm reduction NGO The Loop, which made international headlines last summer when they conducted the UK's first front-of-house drugs testing (MAST) at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling.
This year, their reach is even wider: the ink hasn't quite dried on all the contracts, but The Loop will be providing drugs testing at four or five commercial festivals, including, provisionally, Reading and Leeds, as well as five or six independent events, including Boomtown, Kendall Calling and the pioneering Secret Garden Party. Add up all the guests at these events and Fiona reckons up to half a million people will have access to a potentially life-saving service. All this is a result of consultations with police and local authorities, as opposed to government officials, with permission being granted initially at a local before national level.
The Loop's presence at festivals last year was a breakthrough moment for all those who have spent years fighting to steer UK drug policy away from its traditional reliance on abstinence and criminal justice, and towards a focus on public health and harm reduction. This shift is clearly much needed, as the stats show the government's current approach is bearing rotten fruit: a record 3,674 drug deaths were recorded in 2015, with 57 people dying after taking ecstasy – a result, in large part, of increased purity.
"Changing national policy is like turning an oil tanker around, but we were impatient, knowing every year people are dying," says Fiona over the phone. "National policy might takes years and years to change, but drug deaths are going up. We don't have years."
WATCH: 'High Society – The Truth About Ecstasy', featuring Fiona and The Loop
Fiona's passion for the murky potential of the night was aroused in Birmingham during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was an early-starter, going to her first club when she was 13. By 15 she was working behind the bar in Birmingham's The Opposite Lock club and hitchhiking down to London's Marquee Club to watch mod and ska bands. "We'd hitch a lift at Spaghetti Junction, sneak into the club while they were sound-checking so we didn't have to pay, then hitchhike back," she remembers. "By the time we got back to Birmingham milk had been delivered, so we'd nab a couple of bottles for breakfast before school."
The effect on her education can't have been too detrimental: Fiona's day job is now Professor of Criminology at Durham University. As an academic she's spent her career exploring the relationship between dance music and drugs, and co-authored the first British academic study on the topic: Dancing on Drugs: Risk, Health and Hedonism in the British Club Scene. She thinks coming from an academic background has helped in her seemingly infinite meetings with police, public health officials and local authorities in her work with The Loop. "As a professor of criminology I'm not seen as automatically 'on the other side'," she says, "like I might if I was a drugs worker with dreadlocks and a Bob Marley T-shirt. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course."
Those meetings are becoming ever more regular since last summer's successful drug testing pilots; hardly a surprise when you consider the stats from Secret Garden Party. Across two days, The Loop – run entirely by volunteers, the majority of them doctors and chemistry professors, with NHS nurses on hand to offer harm reduction advice – tested more than 250 people's drugs. The results have been well reported: one in five people gave their drugs back, mostly put off by adulterants their drugs were cut with. For instance, crushed-up malaria tablets parading as ketamine and ecstasy pills composed of concrete. Critics fear that offering drugs testing will normalise the idea of drug taking at clubs and festivals. Beyond missing the fact that it's already very normalised, with the evidence at hand, it's hard to argue that providing a service aimed at taking bad drugs out of people's hands is in any way a negative thing.
The NGO also conducts back-of-house testing at Manchester's Warehouse Project, where seized drugs are tested and any notably dangerous drugs flagged up on the club's social media. They'll be doing the same at Manchester's Albert Hall, and giving quarterly on-site harm reduction advice at Fabric, where they have been training up management to deliver in-house harm reduction welfare. (Speaking of Fabric, Fiona was the expert witness in the successful appeal against its closure.)
Things have come a long way since Fiona moved to Manchester in 1991. The city was one focal point of the UK's rave scene, and a colleague of hers – Russell Newcombe – had set up the Rave Research Bureau. Fiona was an assistant on the project, which sought to understand, from the dance floor up, the UK's biggest counter-cultural movement since punk. "I went to the Hacienda and Sankeys and, of course, I loved it," she says. "But I was never really taken by that house scene. Then, in May of 1993, I went with some friends to a club playing jungle music in Wolverhampton, and that was the one for me: I knew within two minutes of walking in."
If jungle was Fiona's passion then, now it's keeping people safe when they're taking drugs. And she's not alone; The Loop are one of a number of organisations that won't let the drug dog lie. There's the policy reform charity Transform; festival welfare superstars Chill Welfare; and Volteface, a think-thank and magazine set up to explore alternatives to the UK's current harmful drug policies. Their Science and Health Policy Director Dr Henry Fisher works closely with Fiona, and was onsite testing drugs at Secret Garden Party last July.
"She's one of the first people to really study how people use drugs recreationally," says Henry. "It's helped change public and academic understanding, and get us away from lazy stereotypes of drug addicts and pilled-up ravers. She's also showed that change can happen at a local level first, rather than having to come through changing laws at the top of government."
This is something Fiona returns to frequently, pointing out that the most profound changes are taking place nowhere near London, the supposed hothouse of progressivism in the UK. "The further you get away from the capital, it seems, the more radical the initiatives can be." As revealed by VICE late last year, in Durham and Bristol we're seeing a situation where possession of drugs is effectively being decriminalised, while in Glasgow plans to open safe injection sites for intravenous drug users have been approved. "On a local level we've had such strong police support in the past year that it's made it harder for people to be obstructive to our plans," says Fiona. "But London is lagging behind."
While all of The Loop's success so far has come locally, Fiona does see one quick fix that could be applied nationally. "The Misuse of Drugs Act makes possession an offence, and last year's Psychoactive Substances Act doesn't," she says. "So we've got a disparity. Resolving that would chime with what's happening regionally. The police wouldn't have to bend over backwards for de-facto decriminalisation, it would make it far easier for us to do our testing. Plus it would be prioritising public health over a possessions offence."
And with that, we're wrapping up. Fiona's got a busy day tomorrow: she's centrally involved with a prison exchange programme in three Durham prisons called Inside Out, which helps inmates and undergraduates learn through shared time together under her supervision. She says it's "incredibly rewarding" – another part of her own life dedicated to improving other people's. When she hangs up the phone it's with that slightly distracted manner of someone who's got somewhere else to be. Or maybe she's just going to bed.
Somehow, I doubt it.
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