“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.