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Drug testing, disposals and dealing: outcomes of the UK’s first onsite drug checking service

a massive crowd at a concert or festival

An alarming rise in drug-related deaths at music festivals can be countered by testing illicit substances onsite, according to the first academic study of its kind [PDF download], which has triggered calls for similar services to be rolled out at all major events.

Samples contained ketamine instead of cocaine, while a drug sold as MDMA turned out to be n-ethylpentylone, a long-lasting cathinone that can cause anxiety, paranoia, insomnia and psychosis. Chemists from the non-profit social enterprise The Loop, founded by DrugScience’s Fiona Measham, analysed 247 drug samples brought in anonymously by festivalgoers.

Testers found that one in five substances sold at the Secret Garden Party, a four-day festival in Cambridgeshire in July 2016, were not as described by dealers. Two-thirds of people who discovered they had had substances missold to them subsequently handed over further substances to the police, according to the study.

In 2016, when the Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) pilot took place at the Secret Garden Party, UK drug-related deaths and festival drug-related deaths reached their highest on record. However, there was just one drug-related hospital admission at the Secret Garden Party, against 19 in the previous year, a 95% reduction.

“The service not only identifies and informs service users about the contents of their submitted sample and provides them with direct harm reduction advice but this pilot tells us they spread the information to their friends,” said Fiona Measham from Durham University’s Department of Sociology, and director of The Loop.

Voluntary drug-safety testing at festivals has been resisted by some major event organisers. But Measham said she hoped the study would go some way to proving its usefulness.

“As a cutting-edge, and some might consider controversial, service it is imperative that we evaluate the impact of the introduction of drug safety testing in the UK,” she said. “This paper is a first small step towards this.”

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