As charity The Loop reduced harms by testing drugs at Love Saves The Day this weekend, Bristol also became the first place in the UK to offer city centre testing.
Photos: Noberto Fernandez Soriano
At Bristol’s Love Saves The Day festival, news spreads on Sunday morning that two people have died after taking “dangerous high strength” drugs at Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth.
Outside the tent run by charity The Loop, where festival-goers can get their drugs tested on-site, Chris Lark says: “There were two people killed yesterday, so if it stops two people dying, it has to be a good thing.”
Except Chris is not a twentysomething with a liberal view on drugs. He is 67, anti-drugs and has never taken anything in his life.
“You have people buying drugs for the first time – something they think is MDMA – but is spiked with PMA or some other adulterant, which could kill them”
This is The Loop’s third summer of reducing harm by testing drugs at UK festivals, but now, for the very first time, they are offering pop-up testing in Bristol city centre in an initiative backed by local police, the council and local MPs.
After two pilot days of testing in May, for the next six months, Bristolians will be able to to find out what’s in their drugs, how strong they are and how to take them safely.
With drug-related deaths on the rise and the strength of MDMA pills often dangerously high, this information can make all the difference. The Loop issued warnings after tests in Bristol city centre found a heart-shaped pill sold as MDMA was actually N-ethylpentylone – a potentially lethal, long-lasting stimulant that could keep you awake for days.
At Love Saves The Day (LSTD), a blue ‘Punisher’ pill was found to contain more than 300mg of MDMA – three to four times the recommended dose, and the strength of ‘Silver Bar’ tablets varied fourfold.
One in ten samples tested at the festival were not what they were sold as. Pills turned out to be plaster of Paris, crushed paracetamol was sold as MDMA powder, antimalarial drug chloroquine as cocaine and even what someone thought was a huge MDMA pill was in fact a Pepto-Bismol.
Henry Fisher, The Loop’s senior chemist, tells the Cable: “This service is important because drug use at the moment is increasing in danger. Young people know less than they ever did before about what they’re taking.
“This service provides a unique route for people taking recreational drugs by providing them with reliable information that they can trust and do something with to reduce the harms of their drug use.
“A lot of drug use happens at festivals but also elsewhere, so introducing city centre testing in Bristol allows us to provide a service to a wider group of people- not just typical club drug users but also potentially opiate [e.g Heroin] users.”
After doing three festivals last year including Boomtown and Secret Garden Party, The Loop plan to do six in 2018. They also hope to roll out city centre testing to three other places this year, but this would require full support from local councils and police.
“We’ve had a lot of police forces and councils contact us because they want testing in their cities, but there’s also still a lot of resistance from government and from areas who aren’t quite ready for it yet,” Fisher says.
Consensus among festival-goers
George Taber, a 19-year-old student, got his MDMA tested in Bristol the day before the festival. “This service is gonna save lives,” he says. “You have people buying drugs for the first time – something they think is MDMA – but is spiked with PMA or some other adulterant, which could kill them.”
“It just gives you peace of mind. I know tomorrow I’ll be alright rather than worrying about what’s in my drugs.”
Of the 200 people who got their drugs tested at LSTD, results brought mixed reactions. One guy is happy his pill was stronger than expected. Another is disappointed with the strength of his and says he needs to “go have a word” with who gave it to him.
A group of lads had their pink ‘Tesla’ pills tested, which at 250mg were really strong. “It’ll slow us down for sure,” they say referring to the testing. “In the past, friends have taken stuff that wasn’t what they thought it was and had weird reactions. We’d rather know what we’re taking.”
Another festival-goer, who is planning on testing his coke and ketamine, says: “Every festival I’ve been to, I’ve seen someone on the floor, fucked out of their head, so this testing is a good idea.”
A 19-year-old comes to test a baggy she found on the street. She is pleased after it turns out to be MDMA. “It’s good to know and they gave me good, solid advice about how much to take. It’s above average strength, so best to take a smaller amount, which I wouldn’t have known,” she says.
She thinks the services offered by The Loop are “brilliant”, because so many people are otherwise “leaving so much up to chance”.
“Just yesterday, people were taking ket and alcohol and died because they took too much and weren’t aware, because the government doesn’t supply enough information about what is sensible.”
Sam Cooper is another to test his MDMA, which turns out to be stronger than expected. At the age of 33, he wishes he’d been able to test and get advice when he started out over a decade ago.
“At the moment with pills and MDMA, strength is the big factor and it’s quite scary,” he says, adding that some younger users are “blasė” about what they’re taking.
“It’s amazing that it’s also in the city centre. That’s where the majority of the recreational drug use is going on. It’s incredible that the forces that be are allowing them to be here.”
Supported by society at large?
But it’s not just drug users who back reducing harm. Festival stewards and medical staff have to deal with drugs and their effects. A steward at LTSD says: “Drugs are a massive problem – they can lead to deaths, so testing is a good idea, because otherwise the after effects are passed on.”
He says despite strict security checks “quite a lot of people try their luck”, and “there’s only so much you can stop” from being smuggled in.
While some people would oppose anything that could be seen as encouraging drug use, there are signs The Loop’s testing has some support among older generations.
Stephanie Joromani, a 49-year-old local resident, says: “I’m against drugs. I will never take drugs and I wouldn’t want my kids to take drugs, but if someone is addicted, they should be kept safe by checking how much they are taking.”
“I think it will make it safer. There is a lot of people who take drugs behind doors and it would encourage them to come out, ask how much they are taking and seek help,” she adds.
Chris Lark at LSTD says: “All drugs are bad, let’s be quite honest. People will take drugs, kids are dying all the time and they don’t know what they’re taking. If it saves two lives, it has to be worthwhile.”
At the end of the weekend, Tom Paine, the festival’s director, says The Loop’s testing has “gone as well as we could have hoped”.
“Obviously with the tragedies in Portsmouth this weekend, it brings it all home and illuminates even further how important this approach is in preventing drug-related harms. For us, the work the Loop did on-site was great in raising awareness.”
“We don’t know if we saved someone’s life this weekend, but we may well have, by somebody taking half a pill rather than a whole one.”
“We’re lucky in Bristol that straightaway we got the support of Avon and Somerset Police and Bristol City Council. They’re really forward-thinking organisations.”
He says support from all stakeholders is needed for this to work elsewhere, but that now Bristol has set an example, others are more likely to follow.
Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, has been an outspoken critic of current drug laws. She says she is glad the council and police have backed the initiative, which “has the potential to save lives”.
“If it is judged to be successful at reducing risk and preventing harm, then I hope ways will be found for it to happen more.”
She says it’s a “significant step towards reducing harm”, but that other progressive policies are also needed, such as drug consumption rooms for heroin users, as part of a “complete review of the law and policy around drugs”.
As The Loop looks for funding that would allow them set up five regional testing hubs, central government still refuses to back testing or any other harm reduction initiative.
But in a similar way to drug consumption rooms, commitment from local authorities and police forces can make things happen in pockets around the country. Bristol is leading the way, and by the end of 2018 other cities could well have followed suit.
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This article was published in partnership with Vice magazine.