We Need Drug Testing at Festivals

Kaitlin Dryburgh

I recently danced and partied at BBC1’s Big Weekend Festival in Dundee. A great time with friends and some good music in the mix as well. Just like any event of this size there was extensive security as you entered, bag searches, the occasional pat-down and sniffer dog were the expected greeting from the front gate. As well as those measures large wheelie bins had been placed all along the gates that allowed people to drop any prohibited items in them, including drugs. Now considering the police were circling up ahead, It was unclear on whether this was an amnesty situation or not (I assume so). Drugs and festivals, whether you like it or not, go hand in hand, so it should be a big consideration. Yet, after I entered the gates I didn’t see anything else referencing drug taking from the festival organisers for the rest of the weekend. So although the bins might be there for the person who sees a sniffer dog and panics, or changes their mind at the last moment, wheelie bins can’t be the only harm reduction method we should have at a music festival.

One of those ways is through testing. Now just to be clear, I mean testing drugs not people. This takes place all over the world at festivals, and allows for festival organisers to send out the “correct health messaging”. Yet in amazing fashion, but not at all surprising, last week Westminster U-turned on their decision to allow drug-testing at festivals without a special permit.

For over ten years drug testing have been a staple of safeguarding at UK festivals, from the monster festivals of Glastonbury to the local boutique festivals such as Secret Garden, testing is routine. In almost every occasion this is done in partnership with the local police and council.

Testing at festivals is also beneficial to understand more about an unregulated market and its current trends. At last year’s Parklife Festival, testing provided an insight into the current trend in strengths of the drugs being sold, showing that they are seeing a staggering increase in the amount of MDMA found in some pills, with one testing at 223mg of the drug. Just like with anything in life information is power.

The most common form of testing is back-of-house, which enables drug testing to be conducted on drugs that have already been confiscated by security personnel or handed in. This usually has gone ahead with the cooperation of the Police, and it can give the festival organisers a really good picture of any potentially dangerous “batches” in circulation, where festival-goers have been mis-sold drugs for something potential much stronger or completely different. Although this type of testing doesn’t individually let people know about any of the drugs they may have purchased, it does allow for festival organisers to put alerts around venues, camp areas and communal areas that let people know that if they’ve purchased anything similar they should be very careful. Alerts such as these have already been put to good use. Sadly at a festival last year a boy died of an overdose, after testing it was found that the drug he had taken was much stronger than he had possibly been led to believe, an alert was put out to everyone and no one else died. Of course we’ll never 100% know if that saved someone’s live, but some of those attending spoke of binning similar looking batches of MDMA or taking much more caution when consuming.

There is of course front-of-house testing. This allows people to confidentially approach organisations at festivals and have their drugs tested. This will mostly centre around two different areas, the strength of the drug and composition. A study conducted for the International Journal of Drug Policy found that of those who did come forward to test the drug they had purchased 1 in 5 found that the drugs they had purchased were not as sold, resulting in 1 in 5 service users disposing of their drugs after testing, as well as 1 in 6 moderated their consumption after testing. In the face of statistics like that it’s hard to say that testing at festivals doesn’t make a difference. Yet the last time this took place at a UK based festival was 2018 and from the current attitude towards drug testing from the government, it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing it again anytime soon. There are issues to solve when it comes to this type of testing concerning how its implemented and by who, but if this were to be rolled out it could be extremely beneficial.

However, last week it emerged that Parklife a Manchester based festival that is attended by approximately 70,000 people each year would have to apply for a special licence to conduct back-of-house testing. The problem was they were given 48 hours’ notice. Yet this special licence won’t be issued quickly as the time needed to process it can take up to three months, which is ridiculous when the Festival period is already upon us and that’s not to mention the £3000 cost for the licence. It turns out you can put a price on a life and that’s £3000, as often it is smaller charities that conduct the testing instead of the festival itself, so £3000 is a rather large amount of money.

So Parklife went ahead with no drug testing.

To add to the ridiculousness of the regulations that the Home Office are pursuing, the Guardian reported that the Home Office will be excepting to visit the drug testing facilities in the months and weeks leading up to the event. Yet most of the tents and other infrastructures erected for a music festival are not in place this far in advance.

The decision to start enforcing special licenses to conduct drug testing has been met by hostile reponses from those in the music industry, drug policy advocates and those who are attending. Although the Home Office insist this has always been necessary, it was never enforced and seemed to work well with the help of the Police and the local Council. It seems that the smaller festivals such as Parklife who depend on charities to conduct testing won’t be able to attain the license needed in time. Although there was some confusion it is evident that bigger festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds who outsource their testing to private drug testing companies will still have testing.

Which is good to hear but it begs the question what’s going to happen to all the small events? And why do Westminster feel the need to attack harm reduction methods when they’re own policy states;  

“We will support local areas to expand and improve the quality of a full range of evidence-based harm reduction and treatment interventions.”

A local festival wanting to implement drug testing is a basic harm reduction method, that can imply only have positive effects.

The lack of clarity on how the Home Office seek to apply the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations is leaving a trail of baffled people. It seems that even the Home Office is unsure on both the legal and policy framework as experts in the field have been quick to point out legal opinions differ when it comes to what can be undertaken with the special licence.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric that those consuming drugs at a festival do so at their own risk and if they want to eliminate that risk they should just bin the drugs, is not helpful. We will never live in a society where people don’t take drugs at a festival, the cat’s out of the bag and there’s no going back. So we can implement some really sound harm reduction techniques that will save lives, there is no question that testing at festivals have allowed people to go home at the end of the weekend, when they might have otherwise not. Or we can take the lengthier route and make drugs legal so there is a regulated and safe supply of drugs such as MDMA. Thus ensuring people can make informed decisions knowing the origin and strength of the drug their consuming, and therefore not rely on criminal gangs to supply them. However, as much as I would love to see that in the imminent future, I highly doubt it, so for now harm reduction is the best possibly route to educate people and save lives.

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