Testing festival drugs for safety will save lives
Published by The Times (12th June, 2017)
I have been going to festivals for decades, both as a fan and a father. At best they can be blissful; a fusion of sun, fun, music and friends that you want to last for ever. At worst they are miserable; sheltering from storms in seas of mud, while wishing it was time to head home. One thing unites them: wide use of drugs such as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy.
Since drugs can be dangerous, this leads to some casualties. I once saw a teenage girl fall in a fire at dawn, so off her head she seemed oblivious to serious burns as she was stretchered off to hospital. There are more wearily routine sights of drunks being sick or violent. And inevitably, there have been deaths.
Like it or not, some human beings take illegal drugs for pleasure; it is estimated that three million people in Britain have done so. So what hope is there of stopping such a lucrative trade reaching fields of hedonistic weekenders? Especially when myopic politicians have handed control of the market to vicious gangsters.
Forget any warped sense of morality: the main issue for policymakers should be harm reduction. Deaths are caused by lack of regulation over supply. Purity is inconsistent and substances are cut with other products to lift profits. Festival dealers are especially dodgy since they’re less likely to bump into customers again than street traders.
The Royal Society for Public Health is calling for forensic drug-testing facilities at festivals to check contents of powders and strengths of pills. They also want them in city centres near nightclubs. This sensible idea, imported from Canada and Holland, was trialled at two festivals last year with the support of local police. Eight more plan similar services this summer.
At the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire last year technicians found pills made of concrete and boric acid sold as cocaine. The strength of Ecstasy tablets varied fivefold, highlighting the risks of an unregulated market run by hoodlums. One in five revellers dumped their drugs after testing, taking dangerous substances out of circulation.
As with any advance in the daft war on drugs, foolish critics foam with fury. They say this sends the wrong message and argue police are aiding dealers. Yet the move shows public services and local communities are moving faster than timid politicians in developing a pragmatic response to saving lives. Slowly but surely, reality is intruding into the drug debate.