This summer, Britain’s largest drug checking organisation, The Loop, were told they were unable to test drugs at Parklife Festival in Manchester, as they were required to apply for a special licence, despite the organisation having testing services in place there since 2014.
Not only do such licence applications take up to four months to be approved, effectively meaning approval could fall at the end of the festival season, but such licences also require a permanent building address for testing sites, which is not only costly, but unfeasible in a festival situation.
Such groups are offering potentially life saving services to festivalgoers, as a conducted study at the 2019 Secret Garden Party festival in Cambridgeshire saw testing reduce hospital admissions by 95%, according to The Loop, following on from drug-related deaths and festival drug-related deaths hitting their highest annual record in 2016.
Sacha Lord, the founder of Parklife, expressed his own concerns over the safety of festivalgoers, as he was informed by the Home Office a mere 48 hours before the event was due to commence.
“As it stands now, there is no testing this summer. I am really concerned about the safety of many, many customers” he said.
Michael Kill, CEO of the NTIA – the leading trade body representing businesses in the Night Time Economy – said that the “directive from the Home Office to withdraw back of house drug safety testing at Parklife festival on one of the hottest days of the year was dangerously irresponsible.”
He continued: “In 2018 the Home Office was clear that it ‘would not stand in the way of drug testing at festivals and clubs’ as part of the proactive harm reduction strategy, witnessed by MP’s and supported by several Police forces including Avon & Somerset and Greater Manchester.
“Recent communication would suggest an unexplained U-turn, setting a dangerous precedent, which will have considerable ramifications for the current festival season, and a potential to put people’s lives at risk.
“We are calling for the Home Office to reverse its move to block on site back of house drug testing at festivals this season and to give clarity on the legislative framework around testing.”
As organisations and festivals have been regularly practising both back and front of house testing as an important safety procedure for festivals and events, this sudden reversal sparks a wholly justified quest for clarity and explanation.
In a statement released to Mixmag, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Our position hasn’t changed. Drug testing providers must have a licence to test for controlled drugs, including at festivals.
“We have consistently made this condition clear, and law enforcement have always had a responsibility to uphold this legal requirement.
“We have not received any applications for drug testing at the major festivals this summer. We continue to keep an open dialogue with any potential applicants”.
The above comments, to some, seem to be in contrast with earlier interpretations of the Home Office’s 2018 statement, creating an air of confusion surrounding this apparent ‘backtracking’. However, the Home Office has maintained that such regulations, i.e the licence requirements, have always been in place, affirming that it is the duty of law enforcement officers to carry out such legislations.
The Loop have maintained a “no comment” stance.
The organisation launched its Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) testing scheme testing scheme in 2016. Taking inspiration from similar services in countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, MAST is a form of “Front-of-house” drugs testing, that was used pre-pandemic, in which individual service users submit their brought in substances to be analysed and receive tailored results in confidence. According to The Loop’s website, this forms a part of an “individually tailored harm reduction package delivered by experienced substance misuse practitioners”.
The Loop believes that the introduction of this at the Secret Garden Party, as well as Kendal Calling festival, took the drug testing program “a step further”, by facilitating “a dialogue directly between individual customers and members of the Loop’s harm reduction team, enabling the vital connection to be made between presumed and actual drug contents,” its website states.
The programme allows festivalgoers to test their substances without fear of judgement or legal persecution. Where festivals are unable to wholly control the inflow of such substances, these services create a much-needed safety net that extends far beyond the individual drug consumer. Where drugs are misdescribed, contain potentially life-threatening chemicals or have an unusually high dosage, an announcement can be sent to festivalgoers, warning them to avoid the substance, which usually takes the form of a powder or pill.
This not only allows potential users to be made aware of the size, shape, and form of the substance to avoid, but it also allows organisers to inform emergency services, leading to faster and more effective treatments as paramedics are fully aware of the substances they are dealing with.
The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily inhibited the continuation of “Front-of-House” testing, nonetheless, attendees were still made aware of life-threatening substances in circulation via the results delivered from “Back-of-House” testing, where drugs are tested post-seizure.
Due to recent restrictions at Parklife, neither of these methods of testing happened.
In a statement to Mixmag, André Gomes a spokesperson from Release, which is a national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, and editor of TalkingDrugs, shared a similarly alarmed stance in regards to the consequences that the Home Office’s new regulations could have.
Regarding festivals and the jeopardised safety of their attendees, he said: “We have to acknowledge that people will be using drugs in festivals, often for multiple days, out in the sun and heat. Rather than offer a basic level of protection for people from drug-related harms, the Home Office would prefer to have potentially dangerous adulterants or extra-potent batches in circulation without anyone knowing.”
“For many,” he continued, “interacting with drug checking services and their staff is the first time they’re getting non-judgemental expert advice on drugs, their mixing and potential effects. They’re also a good system to collect data and study what’s in circulation. Limiting drug checking is a dangerous decision that could cause harm or even death in specific circumstances.
“Restricting the already limited drug testing infrastructure in British festivals is absolutely appalling. Drug testing is a simple way of ensuring partygoers are able to get real-time alerts about drugs circulating in the festival. Festivals were previously able to operate with memoranda of understanding with police forces; having to depend now on Home Office authorisations risks pricing drug testing services out of festivals (as these licences are expensive, and seem to be necessary for each festival), or prevents their authorisation in time for the festival season. There was nothing wrong with the previous system of drug checking authorisation. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.”
On top of providing much needed advice and expertise on drug consumption and laws, Release, the oldest independent drugs charity in the world, also provides legal advice and representation for people charged with drug possession offences.
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According to the ONS (Office for National Statistics), drug-related deaths have been steadily increasing for the past nine years, with cocaine, the party drug figurehead, seeing the steepest change with an rise of nearly 600% from 2011 (122 deaths) to 2021 (840 deaths).
In late 2022, youth charity The Mix has reported a staggering 75% increase in the amount of young people using substances to cope with life’s problems. This comes at a time where the the long-term effects of enforced lockdown continue to loom over the present, combining with the current cost of living crisis (the main trigger of anxiety, stress and trauma for 61% of responders in a recent poll) to increase the rate of 17-to-19-year-olds with a “probable mental health condition” to leap from 1 in 6 2021 to 1 in 4 in 2022.
This has contributed to the rise in young people seeking help from alcohol and drug services since lockdown ended, as under pressure young people seek out catharsis, including at events like festivals.
As innovative methods of sneaking substances have begun to spread on social media platforms like TikTok, it is clear that complete drug restriction is virtually impossible, and controlled consumption then becomes the most viable solution for protecting public health.
The government’s enforcing of this licensing requirement upon unsuspecting festival organisers could have life-threatening consequences for the 2023 season, and could potentially jeopardise the safety of future festivals.
Megan Townsend, who works with volteface – an independent research and drugs advocacy organisation that aims to reduce harms surrounded by drug use through evidence based policies and reformation – said in a statement to Mixmag: “Drug testing at festivals is and still remains a very important service, so for any of us involved in the industry it was really disappointing to hear the news last week.
“It makes festivals a whole lot safer, especially for the people who are consuming drugs.
“Research has shown that when people are taking substances that aren’t what people expect they are, they are likely to be disposed of, and even when they are what they think they are, [the drugs] are more likely to be disposed of anyway [after being tested].
“The whole service is a key tool in the armoury of promoting awareness and education of drugs in the harm reduction stance rather than just a tough on drugs abstinence based perspective which seems to take the forefront of a lot of drugs education in the UK especially in schools.”
Despite this, Townsend maintained that “it’s important that we look at the news with a bit more nuance than maybe a lot of other news outlets have done.” She emphasised the complex and nuanced nature of drug consumption and its surrounding policies, stressing the necessity of situating the current reformations within the wider framework of the government getting tougher on crime.
She added: “The framing of the entire issue aligns with the Conservative government move to stamp out middle class recreational drug users.
“The position of campaigns and advocates so far is opposite to the government’s approach. Sometimes a more productive and helpful path to an actual effective change is to work towards a more open line of communication with policymakers.”
On Monday, July 3, Sacha Lord and the NTIA revealed that their legal teams have written a letter to the Government on their behalf, calling for a judicial review of the Home Office’s updates. Despite the Home Office’s denial, the letter maintains that the Home Office has been well aware of the on site testing that has been conducted on festival sites across the UK for the last decade.
The letter warns legal action if the Home Office fails to provide a response within a given time frame.
It also pointed out a series of apparently contradictory earlier statements provided by the Home Office, stating that regardless of denials to the contrary: “The Home Office is well aware that on-site drug testing has been taking place at festivals across the country since 2014.”
It adds: “In a response to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on the future of UK music festivals presented in August 2021, the Government said it ‘will continue to support back-of-house testing on substances that have been seized as this can provide useful intelligence and enable festival organisers and other partners to implement harm reduction measures’.”
The letter also stated that in response to a question in The House, in July 2018, the Policing Minister, at the time Nick Hurd MP, said the “Home Office’s position, and that of Ministers, is that these are local operating decisions that we are not standing in the way of.”
Overriding the agreements made between local authorities and drug-testing organisations could have dire consequences, not only to the safety of festivalgoers, but to the wider drug safety network such as medical professionals and paramedics who are no longer made aware of the chemical compositions of circulating dangerous drugs.
The letter stresses the importance of on- site drug testing as providing a quick and effective means of harm reduction, noting that sending drugs away from festival sites to be tested defeats the aims of on-site procedures:
“On-site testing produces immediate results which can be acted on by drug users, festival organisers, the police and medics. The labs also present a safe, anonymous area for a drugs amnesty scheme to be operated, thereby taking dangerous substances out of circulation at festivals.”
Michael Kill, the CEO of the Night Time Industries Association stated: “The Home Office must reverse their decision for 2023, and consider the true impact of withdrawing a practice which has been operating safely in some regions for over 10 years, with the full knowledge and support of the Police and local authorities.
“The festivals and events sector work extremely hard to ensure festivalgoers are kept safe, and rely heavily on back of house drug testing as a vital part of the overarching harm reduction strategy. Without this facility we are putting people’s lives at risk, leaving a considerable void in drug intelligence for Police and medical support services on the ground for the rest of the 2023 season.”
Sacha Lord said:
“The Home Office must put an end to this reckless disregard for the safety of festival goers and reinstate the existing Memorandum of Understanding with immediate effect. The industry works tirelessly to ensure we do everything possible to safeguard the public. If the Home Office continues not to support us in this vital work we will be left with no other choice but to call for a full investigation and consultation.”
Tiffany Ibe is Mixmag’s Digital Intern , follow her on Instagram
Written by: Tim Hopkins