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“Unlucky, mate. Here you go,” the volunteer says as the clubber he’s talking to dutifully deposits a tiny sachet containing white powder, then gives a weary thank you before drifting away into the hazy color and music of the Boomtown Fair music festival in the sunny English countryside.
The clubber had just been told the result from the onsite lab clearly indicated that his “MDMA crystals” were, in fact, crushed-up malaria tablets. He chose to have them disposed of, rather than put them up his nose.
This is the “harm reduction tent” at a British festival. I’m lined up with about 50 other people — many of them glowing and with pupils of varying degrees of dilation — all waiting to be seen. The revelers transform the room into a riot of color and energy. The day has only just begun. Some are drinking beer, some coffee; everyone is high-spirited.
In front of me, a 27-year-old teacher wants to make sure his acid is legit, having “had a terrible time” on some dodgy stuff last year. Behind me, a couple are keen to ensure that their ketamine is the genuine article. Behind them is a man who wants to know just how strong his ecstasy pills really are. His dealer told him to “take it slow” with them.
“What’s the most shocking thing you’ve found whilst testing?” I ask a staff member.
“‘Ecstasy pills’ that were actually just concrete pellets,” he replies.
An ugly stimulant — N-ethylpentylone — is doing the rounds at this festival. “It’s being mis-sold as MDMA,” a volunteer informs me. This, he explains, is pretty concerning. It’s similar in appearance to MDMA and, at first, the effects are the same. But the rushy, lovey euphoria rapidly wanes. Sure, you still feel good, but not quite as good as you did 30 minutes ago, with your fists clenched, your arms stretched out to your sides, and your eyeballs going north.
Intent on chasing the high, users tend to redose. That’s when they find themselves confronted by a world of pain. N-ethylpentylone is three times stronger than MDMA, which means taking too much can lead to an unintentional 30-hour trip underpinned by delusions, distortions, and acute paranoia. Mental health practitioners have reported users convincing themselves that they have sexually assaulted someone or that armed gangs are tailing them.
Club drugs can be fun, but they need to be respected; it’s easy to find yourself in a dark place if you don’t know what you’re taking. And let’s face it, unless you have them properly tested, you can’t know what you’re taking.
The anonymous “front of house” drug testing and counseling service I’m using is provided by the Loop, a not-for-profit community organization. By testing the drugs being used at festivals across the UK, they discovered the N-ethylpentylone problem when it was in its infancy. The group uses sophisticated digital marketing to get the message out to prospective victims in real time — vital information about the substances doing the rounds at this particular festival, at this particular moment. It’s information, scientists would say, that yields “high ecological validity.”
This is the future of harm reduction, and this nonprofit is the market leader.
When I reach the front desk, a legal disclaimer is read out that leaves me in little doubt that no drug is safe to use. I produce an ecstasy pill from my wallet and hand it over, before using my house key to transfer a sample of my amphetamine sulphate into a separate resealable polythene bag. I pass that over too, which feels odd considering the lengths I went to get it past the terrifying gauntlet of sniffer dogs and cops at the entrance. I’m given something that looks like a bag-check ticket and told to return in two hours.
Recreational drugs, including what I had on me at Boomtown, are completely illegal in the U.K. Many still view this type of harm reduction as a radical approach.
But maybe we need a radical approach. The reason politicians and police are starting to back these projects is that the U.K. currently has the highest drug-related death rate since records began, and the highest in Europe. In 2010, there were eight MDMA-related deaths in England and Wales. A sudden increase in the drug’s purity caused that figure to shoot up to 63 in 2016 and 56 in 2017. There have been 226 MDMA-related deaths in England and Wales in the past four years.
Data on drug use, which the Loop has carefully recorded at 12 festivals from 2016 through 2018, hopefully will inform U.K. drug policy: The organization’s director, Fiona Measham, was appointed to the U.K. government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009.
In the United States, the biggest challenge to harm reduction campaigns is funding, according to Mitchell Gomez, executive director of U.S.-based harm reduction organization DanceSafe. “The issues of misrepresentation, adulteration, and inadequate education leading to substance deaths is a global one,” he says. “But in the U.S. in particular, the fentanyl crisis has really made the situation clear — people have a right to know what they are consuming, even if that thing they are consuming is banned by law.”
Gomez and his team have a presence at many large music events in the United States, giving out water, condoms, and drug information, and they’re in the process of buying a Bruker Alpha — the same testing machine used by the Loop in the U.K. “The issue with offering this in the U.S. is one of funding, not one of philosophy,” Gomez says. “It’s just a matter of funding and implementation.”
At Boomtown Fair, meanwhile, police have agreed not to arrest anyone entering, standing in, or leaving the harm reduction tent. For this brief moment, in a cramped tent in a scruffy corner of a tiny British music festival, unscientific drug laws are abandoned and education reigns supreme.
While my drugs were being forensically tested in the Loop’s mobile lab, I spent a couple hours drinking beer in the sun and attempting to find my bunch of reprobate friends while soaking up the energy of a funky gypsy ska band called Molotov Jukebox.
Part of the process of finding out the results involves sitting down with a professional drug counselor. During the 15-minute session, we spoke about my lifestyle, my partying habits, and how I could minimize some of the potential harms of how I invariably spend my weekends. I was told my drugs were indeed MDMA and speed and was given advice on dosage.
I left that tent with a very different attitude toward my drug use. I never would have sought counseling, because, rightly or wrongly, I don’t think I have a problem with drugs. But that experience has completely changed my mind: I would actively seek out a counselor, and I didn’t feel judged, threatened, or vulnerable when I was with them. Instead, I was invited to consider my actions and what implications they could have.
With MDMA, my dosing is now tailored to me as an individual, based on body weight, experience, and tolerance. I would have more confidence dealing with a drug-related medical emergency now. I also know more about adjusting my behavior to match my surroundings.
It was a revelation how much difference this brief intervention has made to my lifestyle. I now completely avoid certain drug cocktails. Cocaine paired with alcohol, for instance, is off the table. It turns out that when those two substances are combined, they create a new substance — cocaethylene — which can be catastrophically damaging to your heart. I never knew, but the cost-benefit ratio of eight beers and a few lines of coke is all out of whack.
The Loop is fundraising so they can expand to more festivals and clubs in the U.K. — all the places where nocturnal party animals spend their weekends. I’d like to see this service everywhere so that I’d never take a drug without having it tested again. It’s just a no-brainer. It’s the equivalent of safe sex, but instead of minimizing potential harms with condoms, you arm yourself with knowledge and awareness.
Taking drugs is never completely safe. They all come with varying degrees of risk, which increase significantly if you ingest more than one substance at once. But if the U.K. wants to curtail these overdoses, the government needs to fund pragmatic approaches like this, and sooner rather than later. Nobody needs to die when they go out dancing.