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Drug-Testing At Festivals: Is It Actually Working?

How much of an impact is it really making?


As another festival season draws to a close, many people make their way home with a stinking hangover, a dodgy sunburn, and permanently-scarring memories of the festival toilets on the final day. However, we’re all bound to come across at least one news story in the next few months where people’s festival experiences have been much worse.

In May, 20-year-old Tommy Cowan and 18-year-old Georgia Jones both died at Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth after taking drugs that were of “dangerous high strength or bad batch”. Last year, 25 year-old Louella Michie’s body was found at Bestival, having died of an overdose from a dodgy combo of drugs.

Again and again, people start debating whether UK festivals should allow for drug-testing services. In recent years, more organisations have popped up nationwide, allowing people to test the contents of their bag before they hit the tents. It’s anonymous, you won’t get arrested and, even if there’s something bad in your pills, they’ll still give you the option to keep them or chuck ‘em. Lots of festivals have already set up the services, including Leeds & Reading, Kendall Calling, Bestival and Boomtown.

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So, how have festivals found it?

In the last few years, organisers have had a lot of success with the services. In July last year, drug-testing company ‘The Loop’ found some ecstasy containing double the usual dose and within a few hours had issued a warning on Twitter, with descriptions of what the pill looked like and advice to those who had already taken it. They worked alongside the Cumbria Constabulary to make sure people were aware of the potentially lethal pill. The Royal Society for Public Health also called for the expansion of drug-testing services within the UK.

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Even so, there’s still been a few problems. This year, Festival Republic – the organisers for Reading & Leeds Festival – reversed their decision to allow services at their festivals. Managing director Melvin Benn claimed “front of house testing sounds perfect but has the ability to mislead, I fear”.

I spoke to Matthew Butler, a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Practioner from Hull, about the aims of drug-testing services at festivals. He explained that these campaigns are about "empowering [festival-goers] to make their own choice – in those cases when they haven't taken a substance yet, they're likely to say 'actually, this isn't for me'". Contrary to Melvin Benn's argument, Matthew believes "people are more likely to make sound decisions if they're well informed, and that's what we're there to do; help and inform".

Do people like it?

Festival Republic’s actions are surprising considering the increasing popularity of these services among festival fans.

The Royal Society for Public Health claim 95 per cent of people support the use of drug-testing services, and at some festivals, as much as 1 in 5 users disposed of dangerous drugs after discovering they weren’t what they expected. At Secret Garden Party, there was a 180 per cent increase in people using the service since 2016, and there were reports of queues outside the drug-testing tent at festivals in Bristol.

Connor, 21, went to ‘The Loop’s tent at Kendall Calling this year, to test some Ket he’d brought to the festival. He said they were “really quick, didn’t ask loads of personal questions and explained their testing did have some limits, but were still able to confirm it was definitely Ketamine I was taking. Put my mind at rest, for sure”.

Fiona Measham, co-owner of ‘The Loop’, actually said that about 46 per cent of people who come to the testing service have already taken some of their bag, but are worried about what they’ve taken and want reassurance.

Lucy, 19, found some pills on the floor at Boomtown Festival and decided to get them tested when she spotted a drug-testing tent: “My friends thought it was a bad idea because they thought it was a trick by the police or something. I assumed the pills were MD but the tests said they were steroids, which was a bit of a surprise. Obviously I didn’t take them”

Lucy also referred me to her friend, Erin, who ended up at The Loop's tent at Kendall Calling last year. She told me how her boyfriend had taken some ecstasy he'd brought into the festival, but then "our friends started to comment on how weird he looked, and I think it panicked him. I could tell he was freaking out which obviously isn't great when you're high so I suggested we take some of his stuff to the tent and get it tested so he knew it was fine. They tested it, said it was okay, but told us to stick around in case he needed help. He was fine, I think it put his mind at rest".

In recent festivals, ‘The Loop’ have found some weird stuff in people’s drugs, including concrete, anti-malaria medication, and a compound called Pentylone, which keeps users awake for 36 hours. They’ve also tested a lot of ‘drugs’ which turn out to just be sugar. Awkward.

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After disputes with authorities for years, the government are starting to come round to the idea of drug-testing services. The Home Office recently claimed it would not “stand in the way” of organisations like ‘The Loop’ anymore, and Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire argued in the House of Commons that the government should “make it a requirement that festivals, and, if possible, nightclubs, have to ensure there is drug safety testing available for every event they run”.


The verdict?

The point is this – people are going to take drugs whether drug-testing services are available or not. Stuff like Ket and MDMA aren’t legal for a reason, and we all know that. Grandad and grandma will argue that ‘people just shouldn’t take drugs in the first place’, but they were probably having LSD for breakfast back in the 60s, or have never come across a single Class A drug in their life.

As a nation, we’re particularly fond on getting fried off the things we were warned about at school. The NHS reported that 1 in 12 adults had taken at least one “illicit drug” in the last year, and teenagers in Britain are more likely to have taken drugs than anywhere else in Europe.

While organisations services like ‘The Loop’ are being admitted into more UK festivals, problems with funding and local authorities continue to be an obstacle, but the laws look to change as the demand for drug-testing services are getting louder and louder. It seems like these tents will be popping up at more and more festivals in the next few years.