Staying in The Loop: the organisation testing drugs, one festival at a time

Drug testing is hopefully the first step towards a more fact-based approach to government policy.

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Young people using drugs to have a good time is not particularly new. Every generation has had its drug of choice; from LSD in the Sixties and Seventies, to cocaine in the Eighties and Nineties, and mixtures of whatever else in between and afterwards. 

But even as scores of people of all ages continue to use drugs, government policy was, until quite recently, mired in draconian ideas around criminal justice and abstention.

But however imperceptibly, the tides are turning. Public health officials, researchers and music festival organisers have increasingly come out in favor of drug testing. One of the organisations leading the way is the award winning harm reduction NGO The Loop, set up by Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at Durham University, and drum and bass DJ Wilf Gregory.

The Loop made headlines last summer as it rolled out Multi Agent Safety Testing (MAST), the first on-site drug testing facility of its kind in the UK, at the Secret Garden Party festival.

This summer, The Loop also teamed up with Vice for a drug safety campaign; billboards and flyers emblazoned with “always practice safe sesh” popped up across festivals and nightlife venues.

The Loop has previously conducted back-of-house testing at clubs such as Manchester’s Warehouse Project and London’s Fabric – but it tests primarily at independent festivals where organisers have actively sought its presence. While the NGO has faced some criticism since it began to roll out its services more widely, some of its patrons include the Royal Society for Public Health, Greater Manchester Police, and the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Dr Henry Fisher, science and health policy director at think tank Volteface, who has been running The Loop’s pop-up labs, says that there are generally three drugs – cocaine, ketamine and MDMA (a form of ecstasy) – that they see most often. At festivals like Boomtown, they tend to see more psychedelics.

“We do always say that the best way to avoid the danger of drugs is just not to do them,” Fisher says. “But if you’re at a festival and you’ve smuggled yours in or bought them inside, you intend on taking them, so we provide practical advice – such as not mixing depressants and dissociatives, like alcohol and ketamine, and dosage suggestions.”

Run entirely by volunteers, The Loop sets up a secure tent at the festivals where it’s received a permit; individuals hand in a either half a pill or a small amount of powder, which is then numbered and passed on to the volunteer chemists in the field lab.

The samples then undergo a barrage of tests, such as infrared spectroscopy. This means varying wavelengths in a beam of infrared light shone at the sample are reflected and absorbed, creating a unique fingerprint which is then compared to a database of legal and illegal drugs, cutting agents and other common substances, to test for purity and strength. The samples and residue are then destroyed.

After the drugs have been analysed, the results are passed on to harm reduction workers who meet the individual in possession for a non-judgmental conversation. In instances where people have raised concerns about addiction and habitual drug use, the workers provide more long-term advice, too.“There’s a toss-up between getting people the most accurate information and the most useful information,” Fisher says.

Fisher spoke of n-ethyl pentylone, a long-lasting stimulant that can cause transient psychosis, which was found to have been sold as MDMA at festivals more frequently this summer. “The benefit of testing samples is that you can put out a warning earlier and people went and got their drugs tested – several people came to us with those samples and then we recommended that they don’t take them. So this is reducing harm." Other substances found in drugs included plaster of paris, sugar, and even concrete.  

Critics of The Loop and other similar services often lobby the accusation that drug testing facilitates drug use. But the results speak for themselves – around 20 per cent of the people who choose to get their drugs tested turn the rest in, and many who do are in possession of the most dangerous samples. Fisher adds that “48 per cent of people at the Secret Garden Party who came and got their drugs tested with us than said that they were planning on taking a lower amount after our intervention. We’re physically reducing harm."

The Loop tweeted recently that every medical and welfare organisation it has spoken to has agreed that onsite testing does reduce harm. At Boomtown, one of the last festivals where The Loop was present, medical professionals on site reportedly saw a drop in health issues that arose as a result of drug use. While Fisher says this hasn't been quantified, anecdotal evidence from welfare and medical staff suggests this has been the same at every festival where The Loop has tested drugs.

“Changing national policy is like turning an oil tanker around, but we were impatient, knowing every year people are dying,” Loop co-founder Measham told Vice in May. Public support around drug testing is evident from looking at The Loop’s Twitter feed, with many festival-goers offering high praise. But the process of actually setting up drug testing services at a festival has many moving parts. While the local police are generally very supportive, Fisher says that councils and public health officials are often more difficult to get on board.

“We’ve had to fight to get what limited service The Loop can provide currently, and we’re volunteer led, so we have very limited resources.

“So far we’ve only been able to provide front-of-house testing at three festivals this summer, we’d have liked it to be more.”

But drug testing itself can’t solve some of the larger issues; such as the moves away from a national drug policy, and the de-funding of drug treatment models around the UK. “The necessary things like developing relationships between practitioners and the people who use the service don’t actually happen because local authorities are continually looking for the cheapest possible option, rather than the best possible option for their area,” Fisher adds.

“It may also prevent them from looking at more innovative services – things like drug consumption rooms, and those just aren’t being considered here yet.” 

Meanwhile the people who come and get their drugs tested at a festival might not be indicative of the demographics that use drugs generally: "People who take their drugs in other ways, such as at free squat parties or raves, aren’t able to access our services so much.”

“The UK isn’t ahead of the curve in that drug testing has been offered in other countries for years,” Fisher points out. There are further difficulties with offering drug testing on a more regular basis, such as in nightclubs, which result from time pressures and efficiency, especially given that many club goers will take some of their drugs or drink alcohol before arriving at a venue. However, Fisher says other countries have sought to overcome them. “The Netherlands has been doing it as far back as 1992 – city centre-based services, all over the country, so that people can come any time of the day, and get their drugs tested, funded by the government.”

This might be set to change. Fisher says that interested parties from Australia and New Zealand have contacted The Loop about their machines and protocols. Drug testing is hopefully the first step towards a more fact-based approach to drug policy. And for the sweaty revellers who won’t stop any time soon, it might just be what keeps them alive.

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

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