Regular readers will be aware 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. Two years ago the blog covered an evaluation of their work which found that people were both very happy to use the drug checking service and that they either made positive choices on the basis of the results of that service or said they intended to do so. Earlier this week (10 May), the Loop published the results of a follow-up study designed to find out how the combination of test results and personalised health consultations affected their subsequent drug taking and risk management strategies.
How drug checking works
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.
The study compared the intentions and actions of services users at brief interventions conducted at the festival with a follow-up survey conducted over 3 months later to explore outcomes after the session and changes in the intervening months. A total of 130 people (one quarter of those contacted by email) participated in the follow-up study. The research found that individual outcomes matched earlier intentions and that service users followed the harm reduction advice they received at the festival.
Over half the cohort disposed of substances identified as other than what they had bought or expected, thereby reducing the risk of poisoning. Nearly half reduced their dosage and extended their consumption periods, thereby reducing the risk of overdose. This was particularly the case for those whose sample was stronger than expected substance, with nearly three quarters taking less or not taking the substance at all.
Perhaps most importantly, the follow-up research also found that for a large minority, these risk management practices continued after the festival, so that not only were service users more careful about mixing drugs, reducing dosage, following harm reduction advice, and alerting their friends to substances of concern, they also continued to follow this advice three months later.
The researcher concluded that, in the same way that festival drug use is a social activity, this drug checking can also be a social activity, with harm reduction discussions continuing within friendship networks both in person and through social media long after the testing and the festival have ended.
Thanks to Anthony Delanoix for permission to use the header image previously published on Unsplash.