August 4th, 2016
“Would you like to make history?”
That was the opening question we asked the somewhat bemused, glittery attendees of Secret Garden Party—a large music festival that took place from July 21-24 near Cambridge, England—as they passed by our tent.
We were conducting drug testing. Not the kind that involves peeing into a cup, but the kind where festival attendees who had smuggled drugs into the site or bought them there could hand samples over to be checked—anonymously and legally—for content and purity.
We served the full spectrum of festival-goers—from groups of leery lads emptying their pockets of scrunched-up wraps, to quiet couples with one solitary baggy between them, to spaced-out psychonauts with suspect tabs, to consummate ravers with pills grasped in sweaty palms.
People were often incredulous at first, but suspicion quickly turned to enthusiasm as they realized they could finally have an honest, informed conversation about drugs—without being judged.
Our crack team of analytical chemists and experienced drug workers had combined to provide a service dubbed MAST (Multi Agency Safety Testing). The results of our drug tests, conducted in a few minutes in the lab section of the tent, were given back to the waiting festival-goers, along with harm reduction information about the drugs found, in the consultation booths that the tent also contained. We then offered our guests a chance to talk to a drug worker about their drug use and any concerns they might have.
It was a UK first, and marked the culmination of years of hard work, persuasion and research for Professor Fiona Measham (of Durham University), director and co-founder of The Loop, and the rest of her team. It was only possible thanks to the full support of the local police, as well as the council and public health bodies. Securing all that was quite an achievement in a country where national drug policy seems to be going backwards.
A Triumvirate of Tests—And Some Unpleasant Results
As a chemist on the team, I was able to see first-hand why services like this are needed. The safety information given to festival-goers about the drugs they were using was often met with complete surprise, and the identity of the samples that passed through our field lab was sometimes shocking.
A handful of US festivals have trialled drug-testing tents, run by the organization DanceSafe. But so far the group has met with resistance from many events due to the RAVE Act (or technically, the version of it that was passed by Congress in 2003), which interprets harm reduction initiatives as endorsement of drug-use by event organizers. Where DanceSafe has been able to operate, despite providing invaluable advice, it has also been restricted by only being able to test using simplistic and often flawed reagent tests—solutions that change color when mixed with different drugs, but that cannot determine strength, and can be misleading when testing mixtures of substances.
The Loop, in contrast, used a triumvirate of analytical tests. The first of these was infrared spectroscopy, where samples were blasted with infrared lasers, with each different substance giving a unique “fingerprint” reflection of infrared light, which could then be identified against an extensive database. Quantitative analysis was then used on samples in pill form to determine their strength, and reagent tests were used confirm or query the results of the infrared spectroscopy.
While The Loop has been able to test drugs handed over by police and medical staff at previous events, at Secret Garden Party we could for the first time join up information between what people thought they had bought, and what they had actually been given.
Some of our more unpleasant findings included bags of the antimalarial drug chloroquine, sold to different festival attendees both as cocaine and as ketamine.
“Ecstasy” pills contained just as many surprises—with one batch made entirely out of concrete. Those pills that did contain MDMA ranged in strength from 20 milligrams to 250 milligrams—a twelvefold difference.
With our lab only separated from the consultation booths by a thin screen, we were party to the occasional whoops and cheers of groups finding that their baggies contained exactly what they’d hoped for.
We were also aware of the uncomfortable silences as dazed partiers—still getting to grips with the concept of handing over drugs openly without fear of recrimination—found out that the stuff they had been shoveling up their nose 12 hours earlier was not what their trusty neighborhood dealer had led them to believe, but at best an innocuous filler, or at worst something altogether more dangerous.
Whether or not their results were as they had hoped, the people visiting our tent left better informed, more grounded, and more aware of the risks that they were taking with whatever substance they had in their back pocket. This feeling was summed up by David Hiller, a journalist who came in to use our service, who wrote for Vice: “For the rest of the weekend, my friends and I are far less cavalier than normal. We give actual thought as to how we’re feeling, how much we’ve dosed and when the last time we dosed was.”
Our tent decoration was kept minimal to differentiate it from the many colorful party tents that surrounded us. But one of the focal points of the public area of our tent was the Tripsit drug combinations poster hung on the wall, which provided endless fascination to those waiting for their test results to come through.
Speaking to staff as they waited, many people clearly had no idea of the specific dangers of combining certain drugs—another unintended consequence of the longstanding tendency to only ever teach people that “drugs are bad,” with no further guidance.
Along with the data from the forensic drug testing and interventions, which will be analyzed and reported in academic papers by Fiona Measham and her research group, our team collected anonymous surveys of the festival-goers’ drug use. In quieter moments in our field lab, I could pop out of the tent to collect the surveys myself. And it turns out, asking people at a festival if they would like to talk about drugs is met with a very warm welcome—even if you’re wearing a hi-vis tabard and holding a clipboard.
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As with those who came into our tent, the support for our service from surveyed partiers was overwhelming, with the words “long overdue” heard frequently, as well many assurances that they would tell everyone they could about our service.
The surveys allowed an honest snapshot of people’s usage habits to be collected, along with a few interesting stories—such as the girl who, when asked when she had last taken LSD, responded silently with an outstretched tongue holding a tab of acid. Or the partiers who asked to do the survey at double speed, because they were just coming up.
For many, festivals are the one time of the year when they decide to take drugs, while for others it is an occasion where they up their intake, try something new, or introduce curious friends to their substances of choice, in a seemingly safe space.
People who take drugs in this way are likely never to have spoken face-to-face with a trained drug worker, with most considering their drug use under control or simply ordinary. Besides the test results themselves, what The Loop’s service offered was a rare chance for partiers to reach out to knowledgeable people, improve their usage habits, and reduce the potential harms of their drug use.
However, as Steve Rolles, policy analyst at Transform, an organization that supported The Loop at Secret Garden Party, points out, the service itself is a necessary product of our current drug laws.
“We only need services like this because drugs are still produced and sold in a completely unregulated illegal market,” he says. “There’s no testing service for beer sold at festivals because people quite rightly assume that it won’t be cut with other drugs or be of wildly varying potency. There should be ingredient listings and safety info on all drugs—but that can’t happen until they are regulated.”
“We now have police-approved harm reduction services that are predominantly reducing risks created by harm-maximizing drug laws that the police are also supposed to enforce,” he notes. “UK drug policy is at war with itself.”
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The Loop’s MAST service exemplifies this. While the testing service is not perfect—and its shortcomings are clearly stated to people using the service—the knowledge and information given and received in the tent was invaluable, and possibly even lifesaving.
And for Fiona’s research team, as well as medical and welfare staff, the information obtained mean they can all do their jobs more effectively.
What’s most revealing to me, is how without services like this, people who use drugs really are completely in the dark, not just about what they’re taking, but about the accompanying risks, and how they could be reduced or exacerbated by simple actions.
People who use drugs recreationally do not want to harm themselves—quite the opposite. Without major changes to drug laws, the work of organizations like DanceSafe, The Loop and others will remain essential if unnecessary drug deaths and hospitalizations are to be reduced. It is #TimeToTest.
Henry Fisher is Policy Director of VolteFace and a testing volunteer at The Loop.