Secret Garden Party pioneers drugs testing service for festivalgoers

About 200 people use facility offered by charity The Loop, police and council at Cambridgeshire festival aiming to promote safer drug use

An independent music festival in Cambridgeshire has become the first UK event of its kind to offer people the chance to have their illegal drugs tested to establish their content before they take them.

About 200 individuals took advantage of the unique testing facility, brokered in agreement with the local police and council, at this weekend’s Secret Garden Party, an annual arts and music festival on a Georgian farming estate near Huntingdon.

Freddie Fellowes, who founded the festival 12 years ago, said he was “thrilled” to be able to pioneer the service. “Harm reduction and welfare is a vital part of hosting any event and it’s an area that for too long has seen little development or advancement,” he said.

Festivalgoers were offered the tests as part of a 10-minute package of health and safety advice provided by The Loop, an organisation that conducts forensic testing of drugs at festivals and nightclubs and offers associated welfare support.

Fiona Measham, co-founder of the organisation, explains: “The Loop has been conducting forensic testing at events for a number of years, but before now, we’ve only tested drugs seized by police, dropped in amnesty bins or provided by paramedics as a result of a medical incident. In the past we have been able to use that testing information to inform on-site services and for generalised safety alerts.”

Describing the Secret Garden Party facility as “a big step forward”, Measham added: “For the first time we’ve been able to offer the testing service to individual users as part of a tailored advice and information package provided by a team of experienced drugs workers. This can help people make informed choices, raising awareness of particularly dangerous substances in circulation and reducing the chance of drug-related problems occurring.”

Over the first day and a half of the festival, which was expected to attract about 30,000 people, over 80 substances of concern were tested. Very high-strength ecstasy pills were found to be in circulation, as well as multiple samples where contents had been misrepresented – including anti-malaria tablets sold as ketamine, and ammonium sulphate sold as MDMA.

Speaking from the festival site on Sunday morning, Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation which was instrumental in negotiating the testing facility with local authorities, said a key result of the initiative was the removal of potentially toxic substances from circulation over the weekend.

“Around a quarter of people who brought in their drugs then asked us to dispose of them when they discovered that they had been mis-sold or were duds. We were taking dangerous substances out of circulation.”

He added that while some festivalgoers had been suspicious of the involvement of local police, many were used to similar testing facilities provided at music events in Germany and the Netherlands.

Rolles, who is in discussion with two other festivals to provide a similar service, said the partnership with Cambridgeshire police, local public health authorities and the festival organisers had been several years in the making. “The police are increasingly pragmatic about drug-taking at festivals, and this is a case of them showing leadership and recognising that the priority should be health and wellbeing, not enforcement.”

While Rolles is hopeful that more festivals will “take the plunge” and offer the service next summer, he acknowledges that provision will also depend on the agreement of local police and councils, unless national organisations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and Public Health England are willing to affirm that on-site drug testing should be best practice.

He says: “Until the laws are reformed, testing and encouraging safer drug use is the least we can do. We hope this groundbreaking service becomes the norm for all such events. It is now up to others to follow, to protect the health and safety of their customers. In truth it would be negligent for them not to.”


Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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