Secret Garden Party, 2014. Credit: Flickr, Angel Ganev.

Drug-related fatalities at festivals are on the rise, particularly in the United Kingdom. In such situations, there’s not much law enforcement can do, despite their best efforts, as some festivals gather tens of thousands of people. In fact, the police can make matters worse. A UK non-profit organization called The Loop, which focuses on harm reduction, has a different strategy for keeping festival-goers safe. Instead of controlling supply with a wide net which is bound to let dubious substances through the cracks, Loop performed free, anonymous drug testing at the grounds of a festival.

The results were striking. One in five drugs were not as sold, containing cutting agents or dangerous psychoactive substances. When people saw the results, they were far more likely to discard the rest of their drugs and share warnings on social media, thus alerting other festival-goers of the dangers of tainted drugs or frauds.

Looks can be deceiving

Chemists at The Loop, which included researchers at Durham University, set up temporary laboratories at the Secret Garden Party, a four-day festival in Cambridgeshire in July 2016. The researchers tested approximately 247 substances and offered harm reduction advice to the anonymous festival-goers who submitted the samples.

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Test results revealed that one in five substances was not as sold or acquired. For instance, meth and ketamine were sold instead of cocaine, while in many cases what was supposed to be MDMA (the psychoactive ingredient in ‘ecstasy’ pills) turned out to be n-ethylpentylone, a designer drug that looks exactly as MDMA but which causes anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, and psychosis.

“The mis-selling of pentylone and its analogues is particularly insidious because the effects are initially quite similar to MDMA itself, but the empathogenic effects are not so pronounced and the euphoria fades more quickly. This leads people to redose, but redosing seems to disproportionately extend the time to clear the body and this makes sleep very difficult or impossible for up to 72 hours without further medication. This stimulated sleep deprivation is horrible at best, and multiple cases of temporary psychosis have been recorded,” according to a blog post.

Other dubious substances found in the samples include anti-malaria drugs, brown sugar, or plaster of paris.

According to the study, two-thirds of the people who were informed they had been missold subsequently discarded the substances. According to The Loop, drugs sold at festivals were twice as likely to be something other than advertising compared to offsite purchases. This highlights the significant risks festival-goers expose themselves when they decide to acquire drugs on site.  Women were more likely to be using the drug for the first time and more likely to use the disposal service, the authors added in their study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. 

While a couple hundred people might not seem like much for a festival like Secret Garden Party which regularly sees 30,000 cross its gates, many broadcasted the fact that drugs sold at the premises are highly questionable. This may have helped advert some fatalities. In 2016, there was just one drug-related hospital admission, against 19 in the previous year, marking a 95% reduction.

“The service not only identifies and informs service users about the contents of their submitted sample and provides them with direct harm reduction advice but this pilot tells us they spread the information to their friends,” Fiona Measham from Durham University’s Department of Sociology, and director of The Loop, told The Guardian.