Just Say Know to Drugs: Festival and Club Pill Testing Can Make Partying Safer
For the first time, people going to BoomTown this weekend will be able to find out what’s in the drugs they plan to take, by getting them tested by non-profit organisation The Loop. Front of house drugs safety testing, or Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST), was first offered by The Loop at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling in 2016. This was such a success that they have been invited to provide their service at a number of festivals this year, BoomTown being the next on the calendar.
A growing number of festivals are now openly discussing a new approach to drugs, based on information and harm reduction rather than criminal justice. This shift in attitudes is coming at a very welcome time. Recent developments in the European drug market have seen an unprecedented rise in the strength of ecstasy tablets, with a number of recent reports of adverse health effects, including emergency medical treatment and fatalities, attributed to MDMA toxicity. Indeed, Office for National Statistics figures show an eightfold increase in deaths related to ecstasy in five years, rising to 63 in 2016 from an all-time low of 8 in 2010.
Without specialist drug testing services it is very difficult for drug users to know what they are taking, particularly with regard to potency and purity. Essentially, they have to rely on word of mouth and potentially inaccurate reports based on indicators such as colours or logos on tablets. These methods are unreliable and potentially life threatening. As high quality pills with a distinctive logo and colour develop a good reputation among users, other manufacturers will copy these designs to increase their profits, while changing the contents of the pill. Given that festivals and drug use go hand in hand for a number of people, services such as The Loop that offer drugs safety testing without the fear of criminal sanction would appear vital to avoid health related problems.
The importance of The Loop’s service has already been demonstrated this year, with their detection of the stimulant N-ethyl-pentylone – being missold as MDMA – which was reportedly causing medical incidents at Kendal Calling. The Loop was able to issue an alert with a description of the blue “Anonymous” pill, and this was circulated on social media by the festival and other on-site agencies so as to warn other potential users of their findings. This new approach replaces the traditional message of ‘just say no to drugs’, with timely, relevant and evidence-based advice: just say ‘know’.
The question is, therefore, do services like The Loop actually change behaviour and reduce harm? There is surprisingly little research, despite drugs safety testing being a mainstay in some European countries, such as the Netherlands, for years. A study examining whether such services do actually result in changes in behaviour was published earlier this year. Analysing data collected at music events in the USA by drugs testing company, DanceSafe, the authors found that people whose samples contained something other than MDMA were far less likely to report that they intended to use the drug as those whose samples were positive for MDMA. In other words, being told that the samples contained something unexpected resulted in people saying they would be less likely to take that drug. However, the method used by DanceSafe to test for the presence of MDMA – colorimetric reagent kits – can say only whether MDMA is likely to be present or not, and cannot determine the strength of the pills. The Loop, meanwhile, offers much more comprehensive testing, including infrared and ultraviolet spectroscopy, all conducted by PhD level chemists.
The Loop itself is also evaluating whether its services actually change people’s behaviour towards safer drug use practices, as part of an ongoing research project with Durham University. Their preliminary results are looking promising: last year one in five people handed over drugs to be disposed of after receiving their test results and the harm reduction advice they received. Moreover, this year at Kendal Calling, four in 10 reported that they now intended to use a lower dose after using the service. This is a particularly important outcome, given that the increasing rate of ecstasy-related deaths in the UK has been attributed to high strength pills leading to overdose.
Of course, drugs safety testing is not without limitations. For instance, just because the tested sample doesn’t appear to contain any harmful adulterants, there is no guarantee that all the pills in your pocket are definitely ‘clean’- pill content and strength can vary even in the same batch. Additionally no drug is completely safe, and knowing what’s in your drugs doesn’t mean you won’t experience problems. For these reasons The Loop’s test results are reported back within a structured harm reduction session – delivered by clinically experienced substance misuse practitioners – during which they draw attention to these limitations. Future research should also focus on how test results are interpreted by festivalgoers, and whether people take on board these cautions.
Initial reports from The Loop about the effectiveness of their service, along with the study from the USA are encouraging, but further quantitative research is required in the UK and Europe to conclusively say that this approach works. The Loop will continue to collate and analyse quantitative data to aid that evaluation.
At UCL we are currently running a study into the nightlife scene in partnership with a number of institutions in Europe, including the Trimbos Institute, which pioneered the use of drug testing facilities as a harm reduction tool in the Netherlands – indeed, The Loop hopes to compare their findings with the Trimbos testing database. Our study includes an online survey that is currently live, and we will follow up respondents next year using another survey. Harm reduction, including the use of testing services, forms a major component of our survey and we believe it is crucial to compare how people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe respond to these initiatives. For this reason we’d like as many people who attend festivals or who go clubbing anywhere across the UK, to complete the survey. Head to our website now if you would like to take part.