If you’ve been to a festival, you’ll undoubtedly have seen either drugs or drug-taking. No matter how tight the security at a venue claims to be, people always find a way to get substances on-site. After the sad news that 2 people died after reportedly taking drugs at the Mutiny festival in Portsmouth, substance use at festivals has been propelled back into the spotlight. It was revealed by organisers prior to the festival that they were aware of a high-strength batch of a substance on-site, and they warned revellers to stay away from drugs.
After the deaths, there was public outrage, which seemed to be split neatly into two camps – those suggesting people should just stop doing drugs and those demanding better provision of testing kits and education. I fall into the latter group, for this very simple reason: People who want to take drugs badly enough are going to take them. At the very least, let’s make it safer to do so.
Generally, the kinds of drugs taken at festivals are stimulants and hallucinogenics, such as Cocaine, MDMA, Ecstasy pills and Ketamine. The problem with these types of drugs, when purchased in powder/pill form, is that you never know the authenticity and ingredients of what you’re buying. They could be cut with baking powder, or even worse (some drugs have been found to contain rat poison). It’s a gamble. The Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) found, in 2017, that more than 1 in 8 clubbers had taken Ecstasy in the previous year. As a society we must get to grips with the fact that drugs aren’t just used in shady crack dens – they are used by people from all walks of life.
Harm reduction, rather than punishment should be our main concern. If the law doesn’t deter people from taking drugs, we should ensure we can make doing so as safe as possible. The best course of action at a festival is drug testing. This could be in the form of testing tents or handing out free testing kits (which can be purchased online for as little as £3.50).Testing of drugs at events has been going on for years – but not to give users the chance to make an informed decision. Police and other authorities tested drugs placed in amnesty bins or confiscated, to gather intelligence on the substances.
Organisations such as The Loop advocate better access to drug testing in the UK, not just at festivals but in town centres. Given that the RSPH found that 95% of festival-goers support the implementation of widely-accessible drug-testing areas, there seems no good reason to delay rolling them out. In the same study, 32% of those at festivals said they wouldn’t take drugs if testing revealed impurity. 45% said they would take less or be more careful. Similar results were found in other nations conducting the same kind of research, such as Austria, where 39% said they would not take the drug if it was found to contain unexpected substances. In the past, Boomtown festival has had it’s share of drug-induced deaths, but last year there were none. Boomtown organisers attributed the increased safety to The Loop, who were operating there for the first time.
Combined with better drugs education in schools, Multi Agency Safety Testing (or MAST), which The Loop carry out, is the best way to lower drug-induced deaths. Not only does this form of testing establish the strength and purity of a substance, but it tailors the harm reduction advice given to users. Crucially, MAST removes the fear of arrest or confiscation – a necessary component that allows the scheme to test as many substances as possible. Fear of reprisal from law enforcement would potentially prevent users getting their drugs tested. The scheme uses 4 types of procedure to test the substance, and the sample is destroyed after. Research conducted on the scheme found that 18% opted to have the remainder of their drugs destroyed after finding out what they contained.
Critics of drug-testing at festivals claim that it just encourages drug use or is a waste of money as drug takers “choose to take drugs, so should deal with the consequences”. This mentality is wrong and helps no one. Even if a young person chooses to take a pill at a festival, they don’t deserve to die as a result. Personal responsibility is one thing, but punishing people for making a mistake is another thing entirely. At this point, such is the hatred and moral panic regarding drug users, many consider drug-related deaths as “just desserts”. Unless we, as a society, stop this largely unhelpful mindset, we can’t hope to foster a culture whereby people are well-informed and supported.
Clearly, the current line favoured by authorities, “Just say no”, isn’t working. Nor is the punitive way we deal with drug users. Telling people to turn down drugs is all well and good, but what if they choose to ignore that advice? What if the only advice they were given is to refuse, with the other outcome not covered? Drug safety, rather than drug refusal would be a better way to approach the issue. Drug use is sadly an inevitability in some settings. Turning a blind eye, and using strong words doesn’t constitute the decisive action needed to prevent tragedies like those at Mutiny festival from taking place in the future. Merely saying “don’t do it” and using the current approach doesn’t prevent drug-taking at all, it just prevents harm reduction.