Illegal drugs don’t suddenly become lawful and 100% safe the moment you set foot on the grounds of a music festival, regardless of how normalised they are at many events. While it’s generally pretty easy to get your hands on drugs if you know where to look, it’s much more difficult to ascertain what’s actually in them.
There has been an increase in drug-related deaths at music festivals in recent years, from 10 in 2010 to 57 in 2015, which has been attributed to a rise in the strength of ecstasy. Drug-testing services were piloted at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling last year, and now health experts are calling on all festivals to introduce similar initiatives.
All festival-goers should be able to test their drugs on site to ensure they’re safe, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said, and some festival organisers have backed the call. Secret Garden Party, Kendall Calling and Boomtown festivals have confirmed they’ll offer drug testing this year, and more look set to follow their lead, including Reading and Leeds, NME reported.
The founder of Secret Garden Party, Freddie Fellowes, supports the idea, telling BBC Newsbeat that last year’s trial was a big success. “If it's a good idea in one place it's a good idea everywhere," he said, adding that “a remarkable percentage” of the people who had their drugs tested chose to bin them. "Otherwise they would have gone on to take something that's clearly not what they were expecting,” he said.
“There was a case of some anti-malaria drugs being powdered up and sold as cocaine. We also came across someone who was selling ecstasy tablets that turned out to be 100% concrete."
Melvin Benn, head of Live Nation subsidiary Festival Republic, which organises Reading, Leeds, Latitude, V Festival, Wireless and more, said last month he wanted to introduce drug-testing services with support from the police. “We’ll see it this year for definite… at Leeds I’m pretty certain,” he said. “It’s taken a long time and it won’t be at every festival, but where we think there is a need to do it we will be doing it.”
According to the RSPH, nearly a fifth (18%) of people who tested their drugs threw them away afterwards. Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of RSPH, called drug-related deaths at music festivals “a growing problem for policy makers, health authorities and events companies alike."
"While the use of stimulant 'club drugs' such as ecstasy can never be safe, and RSPH supports ongoing efforts to prevent them entering entertainment venues, we accept that a certain level of use remains inevitable in such settings. We therefore believe that a pragmatic, harm reduction response is necessary."
However, authorities say there are no plans for a national scheme. Simon Bray, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for drugs, said: "Any proposal would need to be considered at a local level by the police force, local authority and health services with a view on its legal, scientific and possible health implications," BBC Newsbeat reported.
He added that police forces would need "a strong understanding of the implications on policing" before any drug testing could be supported locally. "Police could not support initiatives that do not comply with the law or that have unintended negative consequences."