Inside a previously unremarkable circle of grass about 10 metres in diameter, a bold new precedent for drugs policy was set in the UK. Pitched on the grass at the Secret Garden Party 2016 festival in Cambridgeshire, was a tent run by The Loop, a not for profit drug and alcohol service. For those few days it was the first ever de facto decriminalised space for possession of drugs in the UK.
Attendees of the festival could come to the tent and hand over to Loop staff a pill or small scoop of powder where it would be tested for content, purity and strength by a team of chemists without any police interference.
A series of up to three different methods of forensic testing typically took 5-15 minutes to analyse a sample. When those using the service came back to collect their results, they were given individually tailored, free and confidential advice by experienced drugs workers. The risks of their drug and alcohol use were discussed and they could raise any concerns they might have. After being given the results, they were then given the choice to dispose of their drugs. It is important to note that their drug use was neither condoned nor encouraged. This was not 'drug checking' to ensure safer consumption, but harm minimisation. And yes, it was legal. No drugs were returned to users and all drugs were destroyed in the testing process, with police collecting any remnants.
The importance of this development cannot be overstated.While national drug policy is still locked in the deep freeze, the Loop's initiative is the boldest example yet of a progressive evidence-based initiative taking place at a local level. While some police forces have de-prioritised arresting users for cannabis possession or small scale growing, this is the first time any area of the UK, albeit a very small area, has decriminalised possession of all drugs for all users.
This was not an easy battle to win. Alongside the support of the festival management itself, it required the support of the local police, public health and council at all levels, a multifaceted feat of persuasion that The Loop Director and Co-Founder Fiona Measham has been working on behind the scenes for several years. Unsurprisingly there have been several near-misses when trying to implement similar schemes at previous events, each time foiled by unconvinced councillors or truculent public health officials with half an eye on potential reputational damage. "What if someone dies after having their drugs tested on site?" was a regular question posed by opponents. Of course, "what if there are multiple deaths if people can't get their drugs tested on site" was the unasked question left hanging in the air.
Notably, all police forces approached by Measham have been exceptionally supportive of this model of drug testing for public safety - a combination of evidence-based policing and reduced resources means that policing of public events increasingly prioritises harm reduction over criminalisation of possession. This at the same time as national drug policy and local drug services are moving away from harm reduction and increasingly embrace an abstinence-based recovery model of drug prevention and drug treatment. This shift in UK drug policy in recent years has meant that front of house drug testing can sit uneasily with public health officials and councils publicly wedded to zero tolerance festival drug policies.
Clearly the stars aligned for Secret Garden Party and consent was given across the board for it to be the first festival to introduce front of house drug testing to the UK.
The faith of Cambridgeshire police, public health and the enthusiastic organiser of Secret Garden Party, Freddie Fellowes, has seemingly paid off. In total nearly 250 different samples were analysed, with many samples submitted by groups of friends, meaning the actual number of festival-goers who received drugs advice from The Loop actually far exceeded this number. Not bad for an unadvertised first pilot.
MAST is part of a wider research project by Measham at Durham University and the data collected from Secret Garden Party and the second pilot this coming weekend at Kendal Calling festival in Cumbria will be carefully analysed over the coming months. Initial impressions are that the pilot was a resounding success not just for drug users but also for emergency services on site. The value of the service was evident in that nearly a quarter of those who took part, handed their drugs to The Loop to dispose of after finding out that the contents - adulterants or inactive ingredients - were not what they expected. Furthermore they were able to spread the word on site about mis-selling of substances such as anti-malaria tablets as cocaine. While it hasn't yet been quantified, anecdotal reports from paramedics and welfare services on site indicate that they experienced a reduced pressure on their services this year compared with previous years. This then allowed the police to deal with other concerns, such as an influx of organised crime gangs selling nitrous oxide, and paramedics to spend more time on serious casualties.
That small patch of grass also witnessed another small revolution - in people's thinking. Initially sceptical police and paramedics and incredulous partiers saw a different, sensible way of approaching the risks of drug use, and most came away with a different perspective. If such schemes catch on and proliferate, it could be our public and social consciousness that finds itself in an altered state.
Fiona Measham is Director and Co-Founder of The Loop and Professor of Criminology at Durham University. Henry Fisher is Policy Director of VolteFace and testing volunteer at The Loop