Drug Testing at Music Festivals – Keeping People Safe or Condoning Illegal Activity?
5th November 2018
Image Source: Clip2Art
So, what is the problem?
Music festival goers have been indulging in recreational drug use for decades, it is certainly not new news. However, with drug related deaths at these types of events on the rise across the globe, there is a serious need for change.
Deaths in England and Wales:
Linked to ecstasy pills up from 10 in 2010 to 63 in 2016
Linked to cocaine up from 112 in 2011 to 371 in 20161
An online article by the BBC suggests the number of people using such drugs remains largely unchanged and is therefore not to blame for the increase in deaths. It is widely considered that the issue is down to the composition of the narcotics. Since the 2000’s the active ingredient in ecstasy pills (MDMA) has reportedly increased from between 50mg and 80mg to an average of 125mg1.
As if this wasn’t enough to worry about, an online report by VICE states how in some cases, substances such as concrete and powdered malaria tablets have been found in samples of ketamine and ecstasy on-site at music festivals.
Despite being against the law and the blatant presence of police and their canine counterparts at music festivals, 2/3’s of recreational drug users ‘don’t care’ that what they’re doing is illegal. In fact, this on-site law enforcement is thought to provoke other dangerous actions including cavity hides and ‘panic dumping’, where festival goers take all their drugs at once for fear of being caught in possession. If criminalising the use of drugs isn’t enough to deter people from taking them, what is the next step to ensure festival goers’ safety?
Reports of ‘Super strength’ pills containing in excess of 270mg of MDMA1
What is being done?
Along with having strict drug policies, more and more music festivals are making the choice to offer a free drug testing service. In fact, seven UK music festivals offered front of house testing this summer including Kendal Calling, Boardmasters and MADE festival, with a further five festivals undertaking behind the scenes testing. This is thought to be down to two recent deaths accredited to a batch of super strength pills that made it onto site at UK festival Mutiny. VICE, The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health have joined forces to develop the ‘Safe Sesh’ campaign. This initiative offers free information and advice about drugs and safety as well as drug testing for festival goers. Upon discovering that their drugs may not be what they were hoping for, around 1 out of 10 festival goers handed their drugs over to the police for disposal then and there. Guy Jones (senior chemist for The Loop) also states that around half of those who opted to hand in a drug sample for testing said they would now take smaller quantities after receiving advice on strength and dosage by the organisation’s healthcare professionals.
Is offering drug testing the right thing to do?
Despite the evidence showing how Safe Sesh is having a positive impact on festival goers’ attitudes towards taking drugs, the controversial nature of this campaign means it has been met with some adversity. Despite several Broadwick Live festivals getting onboard with the scheme, the Managing director of Festival Republic, Melvin Benn, announced his opposition to Safe Sesh and outlined what he thought, were potential downfalls to the scheme. Similarly to the UK, recreational drug use in Switzerland is illegal, however since making drug testing facilities widely available, no ‘party drug’ related deaths have been recorded in the past 7 years.
After the summer fatalities at Mutiny Festival, the home office announced that the government wouldn’t ‘stand in the way’ of festivals offering drug testing services. Despite this, during the parliamentary debate it was said that many local governments and police forces are still refusing to allow the service, due to concerns over legality. Oval space, a nightclub in London, wanted to team up with The Loop to offer their customers the same services provided at festivals. This attempt was blocked by the MET police, who said allowing such activity would be condoning the illicit use of drugs and is firmly against their policies. This being said, other constabularies have shown much support for the scheme, which raises questions into communication issues across the board.
It is a tricky topic and one which has led to debates over the prioritisation of keeping people safe, against ensuring organisations are operating within the law. Ultimately the decision on allowing Safe Sesh to operate at these events is down to the government and not the festival organisers themselves. But with criminalising drug users being criticised for dissuading people from seeking help and the government’s ‘just say no’ approach to drugs failing to make a mark, is it time for a change?
1 Waldron, J. and Curran, V. (2018) The drugs being used at UK festivals. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44482290 (Accessed: 13 October 2018).