This year, between six and 10 UK festivals are hoping to provide drug testing on site following the recent increase in drug-related deaths. As the UK appears to be slowly catching up with the rest of Europe in terms of attitudes to harm reduction, April Clare Welsh explores whether this controversial practice can help save the lives of recreational drug users.

Imagine if you could get your drugs checked before you took them. Send a sample off to the lab on a Wednesday and the results could be with you in time for the weekend. Not only could you establish the strength of your stash, but you’d soon know if your party pills had been been cut with concrete, pesticide, or worse. The next move is up to you.

According to Europe’s Nightlife Empowerment & Well-being Network, “the term drug checking refers to an integrated service that basically enables drug users to have their synthetic drugs chemically analyzed as well as receiving advice, consultation and, if necessary, counselling.”

In Zürich, mobile drug checking units have been stationed across nightclubs and at the annual Street Parade since 2001, with the Drug Information Centre (DIZ) opening in 2006 to offer drug-checking twice a week. In the US too, DanceSafe also works in a similar way, providing a harm reduction service for recreational drug users. Founded in 1998, the organization began life as a laboratory pill analysis program before branching out to sell DIY drug testing kits that you can use at home. The results are then published online so drug users can ascertain what’s in the corresponding pill they’re taking.

Since Zürich implemented forensic drug testing in labs, there has not been one single drug-related death throughout the seven years, while in comparison, the number of ecstasy-related deaths in the UK reached their highest level in a decade last year. A staggering 3,674 drug deaths were recorded in the UK in 2015, with 57 people dying after taking ecstasy, compared to eight in 2010.

A huge contributing factor to the rise in fatalities in the UK is the strength of ecstasy.  In the ‘90s and ‘00s, the average MDMA content of pills was around 50-80 mg but this has soared to 125 mg at present, with some super-strength pills containing as much as 240 mg having appeared on the market in the past five years, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

“We’ve got a problem and it’s getting worse,” says Fiona Measham, director of the UK’s first and only festival drug testing service The Loop, a member of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and Professor of Criminology at Durham University. Measham earned her clubbing stripes as a teenager in Birmingham and in 2001 published the first British academic study exploring the relationship between drugs and dance music, titled Dancing on Drugs: Risk, Health and Hedonism in the British Club Scene.

Although it is still pending government approval and a national scheme is not on the horizon, on-site drug testing was trialled at two UK festivals last year – Cambridgeshire’s Secret Garden Party and Cumbria’s Kendal Calling – with successful results that have since prompted calls for a wider implementation of the service.

Known as “front of house testing”, around 200 people used the service at Cambridgeshire’s Secret Garden Party last summer and over 80 substances of concern were tested, with 1 in 5 users handing their drugs back to be disposed of. Festival-goers were able to take their drugs to a testing tent run by The Loop and get their results back half an hour later. Users were also obligated to undertake a 15-minute intervention with a trained practitioner to receive specific harm reduction advice based on factors like their drug history, whether they had been drinking, or whether they were taking any kind of medication.

“It’s not the answer to all our problems but it can certainly play a part in helping to reduce drug-related problems,” says Measham on the impact of drug testing on harm reduction. “I think it can save lives but we have to be cautious about over-estimating its value,” she continues. “It definitely plays a part undoubtedly and we’ve been told that there have been reduced hospitalizations at festivals that we’ve operated at.”

Concrete and boric acid were among the adulterants picked up by The Loop on site last year, with ground ketamine also being mis-sold as cocaine and ground up malaria tablets being passed off as cocaine. But Measham says it’s not just about identifying these contaminants – although that is important – but also about identifying purity levels, which can help in terms of avoiding overdoses.

Measham is currently in talks with between six and 10 other UK festivals – including the Festival Republic-helmed Reading and Leeds – about implementing the service this summer, but explains that it’s a “very long and complicated process that involves police, public health, local authorities, licensing committees and the festivals themselves.”

At the moment, the service is neither approved of nor disapproved of by the UK government and is “a bit of a grey area,” according to Measham, who believes that this will “undoubtedly change.” She points out that across the rest of Europe – countries including Belgium, Austria, Portugal and Spain – there is a culture of drug testing and an understanding of the benefit of conducting tests to find out what is hidden in illegal drugs.

“Traditionally in the UK, we’ve had a conservative drug policy – with a small ‘c’ and a large ‘c’ – and since 2010 there’s been a policy shift away from harm reduction and towards a focus on abstinence based recovery. So rather than try to help people take drugs more safely, you’re trying to stop people from taking drugs,” Measham says. “And while that makes sense in relation to heroin, crack and daily injecting drug users, I think for many recreational drug users (i.e. people taking party drugs at weekends at festivals and nightclubs) they don’t necessarily see themselves as having a problem and they don’t necessarily want to stop, but they do have problems because they’ve got illegal drugs and have no idea what’s in them.”

“But neither do the police or the paramedics operating on site, so everybody is operating with one arm or maybe both arms tied behind their back in the sense that they don’t know what is in the substance. From our point of view, testing on site means you can help everybody really. You’re providing the intelligence to see what’s circulating on site, which means the emergency services can do their job better, but also the drug users themselves can make choices and decisions in terms of consumption.”

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001, which means that you can’t get arrested for anything considered less than a 10-day supply. And the statistics certainly support the case for decriminalization – the rate of overdose deaths in the country has plummeted from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012, while the rate of new HIV infections has also decreased massively since the the year the law came into place – from 1,016 cases to 56 in 2012.

João Goulão is Portugal’s national drug co-ordinator and the architect behind the country’s progressive new drug laws. In 2002, Goulão helped to launch Lisbon’s first mobile drug testing unit and he believes that the impact of drug checking on the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs in recreational settings is well known, “but is also vital to prevent overdose fatalities.”

“Evidence suggests that most users intend to change their behaviors (e.g. not take a drug, reduce their dosage, not use alone, etc.) if the drug checking results reveal unexpected or unknown contents in their drugs,” offers Goulão. “Drug checking may also provide useful information for monitoring trends in drug markets and data on the availability of NPS, vital for us, policymakers and health authorities to build responses to this phenomenon.”

Goulão explains that “information, motivational work or even a brief intervention” are delivered as an alternative to criminal penalties. “If dependency is detected, the person is referred to a public outpatient centre.” In Portugal, the specially-created Commissions for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT) has the legal capacity to apply administrative sanctions, “but mostly look forward to assess a user’s needs (treatment or others) and refer them to the most suitable responses,” explains Goulão.

Drug taking is a public health issue, not a criminal one. Drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine are still illegal and it is possible for harm reduction and law enforcement to co-exist in society, but the focus should be on targeting organized crime, rather than penalizing drug users for dropping a pill or cutting a line on a Friday night or at a festival. In the UK, we should be looking to European countries like Switzerland and Portugal as exemplifying the kind of national drug policy that actually works in reducing the mortality rate.

Organizations like The Loop do not normalize recreational drug use, as critics suggest. Measham points out that they are testing the drugs of people who have already bought the drugs, smuggled them on site and are no doubt planning on taking them. “All we can do is potentially reduce drug use by telling them what’s in them, which for some people really puts them off once they discover it’s boric acid or 100% concrete.”

“I think you could argue that it’s doing the opposite of normalizing in that we are discouraging drug use – people have given us drugs to dispose of on their behalf so we are actually taking drugs out of circulation,” continues Measham. “Also, what other drug testing services have found is that it doesn’t normalize in the fact that it doesn’t increase prevalence of drug use – they’ve looked at this in Switzerland and there has been no increase in the prevalence of drug use with the testing.”

The introduction of drug testing at festivals represents a radical and potentially life-saving shift in attitudes to recreational drug use. Organizations like The Loop are doing vital work in reducing harm and providing education, and with public health experts showing support earlier this year, let’s hope it’s not long before drug testing units become a ubiquitous fixture across the country.

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