a photo of Glastonbury festival from the hill

Information shared from drug checking is essential to keep people safe from adulterated, mis-sold or over-strength drugs. This year, the Home Office has made it almost impossible for festivals to facilitate drug checking and, by not being upfront about this decision, are avoiding accountability.

Festival season sees hundreds of thousands of people gathering in fields across the country. Festival organisers put in place a number of measures to keep festival-goers safe. In recent years, this has included reducing drug harms, as they acknowledge that, just as people like to drink alcohol, people take other drugs too.

In 2010, there were 10 ecstasy related deaths at festivals in the UK. By 2015, that number had risen to 57. In 2016, the Secret Garden Party and Kendall Calling festivals facilitated drug checking services – whereby festival-goers could submit a portion of the drugs they intend to take at the festival for testing, to find out exactly what the substances contain. In an illegal drug market, this is one of few ways that people can gather information which will keep them safe from the harms of adulterated or over-strength drugs.

Evidence suggests festivals see a 10% to 25% reduction in drug related harm when drug checking operates on site, and that it changes behaviour: half of those who find out that substances are not what they thought they were sold, hand the drugs over to be destroyed, with similar proportions who find out substances are stronger than they thought taking less to prevent overdose.

When drugs are found to be adulterated or a potential risk to human health, the drugs checking service was able to circulate a photograph of the problematic substance via social media so that others who may have purchased the same are forewarned.

After 2016, more and more festivals facilitated drug checking services and where they have, there has not been a single drug death.

But this year, festival organisers were told in early June that they needed to get a special licence to carry out on-site drug checking at a cost of £3,000 and with a lead in time of three months. An on-site inspection weeks before the event is also required to qualify for a licence, which of course, is impossible for an event on a temporary site.

Sacha Lord, Manchester’s Night Time Economy Advisor, who is considering a legal challenge over the Home Office’s move said, “This testing has, on countless occasions, identified highly dangerous substances in circulation at festivals and undoubtedly has saved lives. On-site drug testing saves lives and the absence of it puts lives at risk”.

The Home Office is staying quiet on the matter – denying there has been any change despite causing chaos and distress for festival organisers. Not only does this mean that the Home Office is not taking responsibility for the change, there is no explanation for it and no opportunity for scrutiny. According to festival organisers, this is outright gaslighting.

The Home Office cannot be disassociated from this decision and its impacts. This dangerous piece of bureaucracy will put many lives at risk. Any negative consequences of the festivals not being able to meet the unreasonable and unnecessary licensing requirement, leaves festivals open to criticism and challenge.

The call to reinstate drug checking has been supported by cross-party MPs as well as musicians, and it is also backed by the Green Party of England and Wales.

Last week, we saw Scottish Government publish a Caring, Compassionate, Human Rights Approach to Drug Policy which calls for the decriminalisation of drugs as well as many harm reduction measures such as drug checking and overdose prevention centres. This was received overwhelmingly positively by those working with drug users and in drug treatment – yet the Westminster Government took less than an hour to issue a rebuttal of the policy with the Labour Party following closely behind.

The Green Party is the only political party that has looked at the evidence on drug use and made policy accordingly. The surest way to save lives and reduce substance misuse is the full legalisation and regulation of all drugs. This will remove the market from criminal gangs and mean drug users know the strength and purity of the substances they are intent on taking. Until we have this, we must do everything we can to minimise harms from substances being handled in an illicit market. Drug checking is an important part of that.

For advice on how to stay safe if using drugs go to https://wearetheloop.org/crush-dab-wait or https://www.shortlist.com/news/drugs-ecstasy-festivals-safe-the-loop-deaths

Zoë Garbett is a Councillor in Hackney and the Green Party Candidate for Mayor of London. Cara Lavan is Co-coordinator of Green Party’s Drug Policy Working Group.

Image credit: Czampal – Creative Commons