What Happened When We Tested Women's Drugs at a Music Festival

Research shows that most people don't know what's in the drugs they consume. We took some drug testing kits to a dance music festival to find out.

by Salma Haidrani
Sep 8 2016, 1:10pm

All photography Alice Zoo

The human psyche is a strange and powerful thing. Otherwise rational people often make decisions that defy logic: deferring knowledge of their exact STI status, or not checking up the chemical composition of the molly they're planning on taking that weekend. But—like timely sexual health checks—testing your stash is vitally important. Knowing how strong your drugs are can be the difference between a fun-filled night spent snorting coke off your best mate's bald head, and an ambulance ride—or worse.

Recent years have seen British musical festivals plagued by a string of deaths, a trend some campaigners attribute to the ever-increasing purity of drugs in circulation. In August 2016 alone, two teenagers died of suspected drugs overdoses in a matter of days. While both of those who tragically lost their lives were men, evidence suggests that women may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of illegal drugs overall.

These widely-reported deaths haven't gone unnoticed by drugs policy campaigners. Advocates for harm reduction—an approach that recognises that people will always do drugs, and seeks to provide them with the information to stay safe—have begun to take pioneering steps into the festival scene.

In the UK, Secret Garden Party became the first festival to pioneer drugs testing as part of a harm reduction approach. In a UK first, forensic drugs testing charity The Loop ran a drop-in facility within the festival. But support for on-site drug testing has yet to make its way to our American and Canadian cousins across the Atlantic, in part because of a more litigious culture. Testing drugs on site, some argue, implicitly condones drug use—a nightmare from an insurance perspective if someone dies or gets hurt.

Mounting evidence suggests that women don't tend to buy their own drugs. According to the 2014 Global Drugs Survey, 73 percent of women ask their friends to pick up drugs on their behalf, compared to 57 percent of male users. "It's far more likely [drugs will] be given to [women] by men, therefore they don't know much about the particular preparation," Dr Adam Winstock of the Global Drugs Survey told VICE. "They may not have done that pill before or taken that powder. It could just be their partner or a bloke at a party going, 'Here, have half a pill.'"

With the purity of MDMA reportedly at an all-time high in the UK (The Loop estimates it is as high as 83 percent), it's vitally important that women know the strength of what they're taking. Provided it's not cut with anything toxic, having low quality stash can actually be a good thing: According to the 2016 Global Drugs Survey, women are up to three times more likely to be hospitalized from MDMA overdoses than men. The tragic death of 15-year-old Martha Fernback—killed by a batch of MDMA of 91 percent purity—proves that too-strong molly can prove fatal.

Whatever you think about drug use—and it's worth pointing out that there's no such thing as a risk-free illegal drug—evidence suggests that drug testing is the best way to keep people safe. Which is why, one August afternoon, I made my way down to a major British festival to be my very own one-person drug testing lab. I wanted to test the purity of female festival-goers' drugs, to find out if they really know what they were taking.

My EZ Test kits were pretty simple to use. All I had to do was match up the results to a color chart, which told me how pure (or impure) the substances I tested were, usually in 30 seconds or so. In the case of coke, the darker the color, the purer the sample. Overwhelmingly, most women seemed to be doing MDMA, although the quality of the stash I test is pretty low: purity levels in the samples I test hover at around the 20 percent to 40 percent mark, which is termed as "low to medium content."

Luckily for me—and for one girl who told me she'd hidden her coke in an (hopefully unused) tampon—security at the festival was pretty lax, so I could smuggle my testing kits without any issues. Because we don't want to unfairly highlight drug use at any event, we're not naming the festival in question, other to say it's a London day festival with a mostly dance-music based line-up.

Seeking out semi-private areas is challenge in a festival rammed with thousands of people, so I look around for anyone clutching tell-tale water bottles. Lollipops and acid house T-shirts aside, if there's one thing that unites ravers all over the world, it's that they probably have a water bottle clenched firmly in their clammy embrace. Unsurprisingly, more than a few people react with paranoia when I approach them, waving kits and asking for their drugs. "Is this legit?" some girls ask, wildly looking around as if expecting police to turn up behind me. But many were willing.

Hari, 25, London, Recruitment

Test results: Hari was taking low purity MDMA

BROADLY: Who bought your MDMA?

Hari: Me. I spent £100 for 3.5 grams. I'm the drug lord within our group of friends! We're coming tomorrow as well. I've sorted them with ket.

We're going to test how pure it is now. If it's shit, are you still going to take it?

It works and as you can tell, I'm high as a kite

It's pretty low. Are you going to take more?

Yes, I've got more in my bag. I'll buy from my dealer again.

What's your biggest drug fuck-up?

I'd had 25-i. It's a drug where you go sort of in and out of consciousness. It's really disconcerting. I saw a lady's head and it was massive. I said to my friend, "Is that woman's head actually that big?" I had to leave the club. I sat on a wall. I could feel myself talking to myself, trying to calm myself. I knew the point I'd fucked up when a homeless man came up to me and said, "Are you OK?" He had an "I feel sorry for you" look on his face.

Kerry, 21, London, Administrator

Test results: Kerry was taking high quality cocaine

It's good coke, Kerry.

I'm really surprised! I'm texting my dealer now to say it's good shit.

Hang on to him. Would you still have blown £50 on it if it was shit?

I probably would have. But I would have been disappointed.

Do you ever take other drugs? What's the worst thing that's happened?

Once, I got sold something but I don't think it was ketamine. I was sick everywhere.

So, your guy mate takes half a pill and offers you the other half. Would you take the same amount as him?

It wouldn't be the first thing I think about. I know my limits.

Ciara, 23, Headhunter, Manchester

Test results: Ciara was taking low quality MDMA.

BROADLY: We're going to test your MDMA. Do you have any idea how strong it will be?

Ciara: I bought it from the dealer a few times but you never know, do you? I have no idea what to expect.

So MDMA can make some people touchy-feely. Would you say it makes you horny?

No, not at all! It completely turns off my sex drive. Last thing on my mind!

It's pretty poor quality—only 20 percent. Would you still have taken it if you'd known?

Today, because it's the only thing I've got on me, I would take it. Any other time, probably not.

Time to look for a new dealer then... Did you know that women are more vulnerable to MDMA overdoses?

I didn't know that. That makes me feel quite vulnerable. If it was legal, I think there'd be a lot more measures on it, you'd know what you'd be getting. It won't stop me taking it [though].

Amy, 21, Brighton, Receptionist

Test results: Amy was taking very high quality MDMA.

BROADLY: Looks like really strong ecstasy, Amy

Amy: I like that it's not packed with shit.

You got it from your guy mates. Do you take the same amount as them?

I'm more cautious. They normally take the whole [pill] or half. I normally do a quarter at first, I like to test it a little bit. I have a high tolerance anyway. I have a friend that's six foot three, massive, muscly. He was sat on the floor but I was like, I feel fine.

Emma, 30, London, Office Worker

Test results: Emma was taking low quality MDMA.

BROADLY: So did you buy your MDMA then?

Emma: My guy mate did. I don't know anyone else that would get it for me.

Do you take the same amount as him then?

I'd be very cautious about doing that. I think we're probably different so I'd probably take less. Especially if they were more experienced than me

It's about 15 percent or so. Do you think it was going to be better?

That's good. I don't want it to be too strong! I'll still buy from the same guy.