Bestival’s bold move to prevent drug deaths

Fun for some: A 25-year-old women died at Bestival in 2017 from a drug-related illness. © Getty

Should festivals allow drug testing? After deaths at a Portsmouth festival, Bestival will let revellers openly test the potency of their drugs. Will it save lives, or normalise drug abuse?

For thousands of young party-goers, music festivals are the highlight of the summer season. But all too often, they end in tragedy.

Just last month two revellers — aged 18 and 20 — died at Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth after reportedly taking Ecstasy. Fifteen others were hospitalised. Organisers cancelled the festival after warning of a “bad batch” of drugs circulating the event.

Now Bestival, one of Britain’s most popular festivals, has announced measures it hopes will prevent drug-related deaths.

In partnership with The Loop, a non-profit drug testing company, attendees will be able to test the strength of drugs they possess, and see if the substance is what they think it is — all without police intervention.

“Bestival strongly advises festival-goers to avoid taking any illegal substances,” said a spokesperson: “however, harm reduction and customer welfare are our priorities, so we have made the decision to… offer drug safety testing onsite, giving people the opportunity to make informed choices.”

In 2017, Boomtown ran the same drug testing initiative. The festival reported a 25% reduction in drug-related medical incidents, and that 44% of their customers said they would reduce their dose or discard their drugs.

Not everyone is on board. Festival Republic, the UK’s largest festival organiser, has withdrawn its support. Managing Director Melvin Benn claimed that testing has the “ability to mislead” — arguing that no test can predict how a substance will impact its user.

David Raynes of the National Drug Prevention Alliance claimed the move "will simply normalise drug taking amongst the young”.

There were 3,744 drug-related deaths in the UK in 2016 — the most on record since comparable statistics began in 1993.

Furthermore, the number of people going to UK music festivals has soared, rising from 2.79 million in 2012 to 3.9 million in 2016.

While the overwhelming majority will come home safe, the dangers of illegal substances persist.

But is drug testing the answer?

Dopey

Yes, some argue. We must prioritise harm reduction. Drugs cannot be totally kept out of festivals, and some people will inevitably choose to take them. This is the best way to keep those people safe from fatal substances. What’s more, evidence suggests that drug testing programmes actually encourage people to take less. We should support the move.

Nonsense, others respond. It sends a harmful message that drug use is a regular part of the festival experience — which will cause more harm in the long run. It is never completely safe to take an illegal drug, and tests like this give users a false sense of security. We must focus on preventing drug use full stop, not facilitating it.

You Decide

  1. How much of a problem is drug use among young people?
  2. Should drugs be legalised?

Activities

  1. In one minute write down as many word associations for the term “drug” as you can think of. Discuss your ideas with a partner, and then the class. What are the most common responses? Why do you think that is?
  2. Watch the two video resources included under Become An Expert. One is a report on the drug testing initiative in action, the other is a debate on whether it is a good idea. After watching the debate, who do you agree with more? Why? What was their most convincing argument?

Some People Say...

“Drugs are a bet with your mind.”

Jim Morrison

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Loop drug testing initiative has not officially been endorsed by the government. A recent Home Office statement said: “The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear — we must prevent drug use in our communities and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery.” As well as drug testing, The Loop also provides customers with specialist drug education and health advice.
What do we not know?
We do not know the wider impacts of the drug testing scheme as it has only been available at a limited number of events. We do not know if the government will change its stance on the initiative, however Theresa May has previously stated that “if somebody has purchased something that the state has deemed illegal, it’s not then for the state to go and test it for you.”

Word Watch

Ecstasy
Also known by its chemical name MDMA. Short-term risks can include anxiety or panic attacks, and developing confused episodes, paranoia or even psychosis. For more information on this and other drugs, see the Talk to Frank link under Become An Expert.
Fifteen
It is unclear how many of these hospitalisations were drug-related.
Bestival
The festival hit the headlines last year after 25-year-old Louella Fletcher-Michie died after taking drugs.
Think
One of the biggest dangers of drugs is that users often have no way of knowing what they are actually taking, with substances often cut with other harmful chemicals.
Festival organiser
The company behind the Reading and Leeds festivals, both extremely popular with teenagers.
3,744
According to the Office for National Statistics.
2.79 million
According to Statista.
Some argue
This week, Hugo Rifkind wrote in support of drug testing for The Times. Read his column for yourself by following the link under Become An Expert.