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UK Government urged to support drug testing at festivals to increase safety

The DCMS has issued a report ahead of Britain's "compressed" summer season 

The UK Government is being urged to support drug testing at festivals to increase safety following a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee meeting last month. 

The committee was presented with compelling evidence to show that widespread drug-checking services save lives. The new recommendations come amid fears of an increase in drug-related incidents and deaths if festivals do return this summer following a hiatus of more than 12 months. In the past four years figures show 14 young people have passed away as a result of overdoses, but experts believe the true figure is much higher. 

"We are highly concerned that a compressed festival season, the likely circulation of high-strength, adulterated drugs and increased risk-taking after lockdown will lead to a spike in drug related deaths at festivals this summer," the DCMS warned. "We heard compelling arguments that drug checking saves lives, but in many cases service providers and police forces are being constrained by a lack of clarity in the legal framework and the need for stronger evidence."

The advice is in part based on an evaluation of the drug checking service delivered by The Loop, a charity we have covered extensively in the past. According to research by the International Journal of Drug Policy, more than half of those who engaged with the organisation disposed of substances that showed to be something other than expected. When asked months later, more than a quarter also said they did not buy drugs from strangers.

Since 2016 "there have been no drug-related deaths at any festival [with drug-checking]," the DCMS committee noted. It also revealed that in 2018 the government stated it would not "stand in the way" of drug testing, but confusion over the nationwide legality of schemes was a major issue. Councils, police and organisers must all agree to implement such initiatives. 

A Guardian report on the findings includes testimonies from mothers whose children died due to illegal substances, and now advocate for drug testing to be in place. These include Wendy Teasdill, whose daughter Ellie Rowe took a lethal combination of high-strength ketamine and alcohol at Boomtown in 2013. The event brought drug testing in four years later, and there have been no deaths since. 

"Had The Loop been at Boomtown when Ellie was there she would have taken the opportunity to have her drugs tested," Teasdill said. " She would also have been advised not to take alcohol with it." 

The article also points to several instances in which the DCMS cites attempts to introduce services that were blocked by authorities. "We Are FSTVL in Essex told us that it has tried on several occasions to introduction Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST)... but each attempt has been denied by the Metropolitan police... The government should introduce a dedicated licensing scheme for drug checking to set a clear legal framework and minimum standards that service providers must meet."

Currently, UK festivals are set to return from 21st June, in line with the final lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, although reports now suggest this could be delayed by anything from two weeks to one month. For a more international perspective on drug use, the Global Drug Survey's COVID-19 special edition took place last year, with results set to be published next month.