the loop fi
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The benefits of festival drug testing

Drug testing by the Loop at Festival results in positive changes to drug user behaviour.

Many readers will know of the work of The Loop a a not for profit Community Interest Company which provides drug safety testing, welfare and harm reduction services at festivals. A new evaluation of the work, conducted by The Loop’s founder, Fiona Measham, provides testimony of its effectiveness. A new research paper, Drug safety testing, disposals and dealing in an English field: Exploring the operational and behavioural outcomes of the UK’s first onsite ‘drug checking’ service, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy explores what drug users who had their drugs tested at a 2016 festival did on receiving the results of the checks.

Drug checking

Chemists in a temporary laboratory analysed 247 substances submitted by the public to a free, confidential
testing service across four days at a UK festival in July 2016. The service was located in a large fixed tent in a designated welfare area alongside festival welfare, paramedic and psychedelic support services, between the entertainment and camping fields, in a police-negotiated ‘tolerance zone’. The tent was divided in two by an opaque screen, with a front desk and individual ‘consultation booths’ accessible to the public, then behind the screen was a pop-up laboratory accessible only to staff. Signage at the tent was implicit, with the availability of onsite testing spreading predominantly by word of mouth through welfare, medical, hospitality and general staff, as well as through artists and management on and off stage.

Members of the public could bring any substances of concern for testing and receive results as part of an  individually tailored brief intervention by healthcare staff. The service operated by service users putting a dose – a pill or approximately 5 mg of powder, but not vegetable or fungal matter – into a small plastic bag which they sealed and posted in a locked amnesty bin that was regularly taken and emptied in the lab. They received a unique ID number and were asked to return about an hour later.Test results were returned to service users embedded in 230 healthcare consultations delivered to approximately 900 festival-goers (one in five drug using festival-goers) that included harm reduction advice and the opportunity to use a disposal service for further substances of concern.

Test results

Half (50%) of the people using the drug checking services bought or acquired their substance off site and successfully smuggled it past security search procedures at entry whereas 48.3% bought or acquired their substance from a friend, acquaintance or dealer within the festival grounds. Tests revealed that 37% of samples were MDMA crystal/powder, 20% ecstasy pills, 13.5% ketamine and 10% cocaine, with nearly one in five samples (19.5%) different from what what they were sold as. Substances acquired within the festival grounds were more than twice as likely to be at variance with what they were sold as compared with those bought offsite (27% v 12%). In terms of missold substances:

  • Some samples were revealed to be cheaper psychoactive drugs missold as more expensive drugs, for example ketamine missold as cocaine (up to double the street price and greater criminal penalties in the UK, resulting in a higher reward to risk ratio for a dealer); and cathinones missold as cocaine, ketamine and MDMA, 
  • A number of samples contained pharmaceuticals and cutting agents including chloroquine (a prescription anti malaria medicine), benzocaine, caffeine, ephedrine and paracetamol all missold as cocaine. 
  • Other missold samples contained inactive but relatively harmless ingredients such as six samples of plaster of paris missold as ecstasy pills and four samples of brown sugar missold as MDMA crystal.

Outcomes

Upon hearing the test result, over one in five people (21.3%) chose to use the police approved disposal service. Two thirds of those whose test result revealed their sample to be at variance with what it was sold as then handed over further substances in their possession compared with under one in ten whose sample was confirmed to be as sold. Those who obtained their sample within the festival grounds were nearly twice as likely to use the disposal service as those who obtained their sample offsite (27% v 14.8%)

Twenty two people (8%) said that they would take the substance over a longer time period or after leaving the festival and another seven said that they intended to take a smaller quantity of the drug. For most of these their test result confirmed the substance to be as sold but of a higher strength than anticipated, with the consultation session providing an opportunity for healthcare staff to discuss estimated strength and appropriate dosage. Six respondents reported their intention to throw away further substances in their possession after hearing the test result. The evaluation argues (convincingly) that it is reasonable to presume that some festival-goers will enter a testing service with just one dose to test and keep the rest of their supplies in their tent for fear of arrest and whilst some might return to utilise the official disposal service, others will discard unwanted substances in any convenient nearby refuse bin.

Two people requested signposting to local drugs services when offered, neither of whom had previously been in touch with drugs services. A further two service users reported planning to return their drugs to their dealer to inform them about unwanted contents and/or to ask for a refund. 

Drug safety testing therefore could stimulate an interesting accountability feedback ‘loop’ between drug dealers and their regular customers. It is also to be presumed that people who were missold drugs told their drug using friends and acquaintances who would be unlikely to buy the same substances from the same dealers.

Conclusion

It is heartening to see such positive outcome from this service, particularly in the context of the sad fact that 2016 saw the highest number of drug-related deaths at Festivals on record (six), although none at the festival that this evaluation is based on.

 

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