Festival Drug Deaths Don't Need to Happen
Another suspected drug-related death at Bestival is a tragic reminder of how avoidable drug harms can be.
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.
This article was originally published in September of 2017, but we are re-publicising it in the wake of two deaths at Mutiny Festival this past weekend, and ahead of the festival season proper, as sadly, nothing has changed since last year.
Another British festival, another suspected drug death.
This weekend, the body of 25-year-old Louella Michie was found in a wooded area on the edge of the Bestival site. Police arrested Louella's boyfriend on suspicion of supplying a class A drug (but have since released him), and her family have said they believe her death was a "tragic accident" and that she "[appeared] to have taken an illegal substance".
Further toxicology tests are yet to take place, but if Louella's death was indeed drug-related, it's another tragic reminder of how avoidable these deaths are. No one's under any illusion that drugs aren't dangerous – they make your body do weird stuff it's not supposed to do – but there are harm reduction services and products available to make drug-taking as safe as it can possibly be. It's just that, for whatever reason, not everybody wants to get on board.
WATCH: How to Use Ecstasy as Safely as Possible
But before we get into that, let's put a couple of things to bed real quick.
First: you might argue that the best way to avoid having a bad time on drugs is to just not take them. And technically: yes, you're right. But also: that's completely not the point. The UK is largely quite keen on battering our brains with everything we were warned about at school, and that's unlikely to change. Also, just checked my records and can confirm that keyboard moralising has saved exactly zero lives. If we want to stop drug-related deaths and hospitalisations, we need to accept that people take drugs and react accordingly.
Second: you might back a prohibition-based approach – cracking down on users and suppliers in the hope it'll dissuade others from dipping their fingers in. Again, I am afraid you are wrong. The war on drugs was lost decades ago: demand is constant and unwavering because, despite being aware of the dangers, people have inquisitive minds, which they occasionally like to alter with the help of £50 baggies. Plus, it's literally impossible to stop drugs getting into the country. The National Crime Agency's former drugs lead essentially admitted as much in an interview with VICE earlier this month.
Now that's done: the solutions, which are simple and basically come down to individuals, private companies and the government taking some responsibility.
The best harm reduction method – which is free and requires absolutely no effort – is to do your drugs sensibly and be mindful of some simple advice. Let's take pills as an example, as it's super strength ecstasy causing the majority of high profile drug deaths in the UK. The strongest ecstasy found this year contained around 250mg of MDMA, with most pills coming in at between 100 to 150mg. Researchers say an "acceptable" dose for one person in one session is about 75mg of MDMA. So always take a half – or, better yet, a quarter – and wait to come up, then ride that out for an hour before re-dosing. Avoid mixing it with other drugs, especially alcohol. Tell someone you're with what you've taken. Simple. You can find some more detailed advice here.
If you want to take that personal responsibility a step further – and you should, obviously, because it'll help you avoid a little thing I like to call "having a fucking awful time" – then invest in some reagent testing kits. They're not 100 percent accurate, but they're inexpensive and can alert you to dodgy adulterants or super high purity, both of which can be harmful. Read a guide on how to use them properly here.
The next responsibility lies with private companies – i.e. festivals and clubs – to lobby local councils, health professionals and police forces to allow them to utilise services like The Loop, where you can go to get your drugs forensically tested and receive personalised harm reduction advice.
A number of festivals – Bestival not included – have already seen sense and done exactly this, and it appears to be having a universally positive effect. Take Boomtown: last year they had no drug testing facilities and one drug-related death onsite. This year, The Loop tested 1,132 samples onsite, there were no deaths and "the head of the paramedics and the head of welfare both said they had seen significantly lower drug-related problems coming to them", according to The Loop's co-founder Fiona Measham.
Finally, the government needs to completely re-appraise its approach to drugs – which, clearly, is wishful thinking, given that its most recent drugs strategy lays out exactly how it plans to not do that at all. So, not sure what else to say about that one. Hey, Terry May, how about doing something actually beneficial for once? Hey, Home Office, why don't you listen to the experts you pay to give you expert advice?
Of course, it's unlikely either of those things are going to happen – and right now, they don't necessarily need to. Educating yourself – whether it's by reading up on the advice or getting your drugs tested – is the best step you can take when it comes to staying safe on the sesh.
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