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Why are the Tories cracking down on festival drug testing?

Drug testing charity The Loop was asked to apply for a special licence to test drugs at this year’s Parklife festival in a UK first

A government “U-turn” on drug testing policies at UK festivals has been branded a “step backwards” from harm reduction in the UK.

Last week, ahead of Parklife festival in Manchester, drug testing and harm reduction charity The Loop was told by the Home Office that it needed to apply for a special licence to operate its testing service at festivals this year, the Guardian reported. This is despite The Loop testing drugs as Parklife annually since 2014. 

The licence can take more than three months to be granted and costs over £3,000, festival organisers have said, calling the policy “prohibitive”. It’s believed to be the first time that a testing organisation has been told to apply for such a licence for back-of-house testing.

The Home Office said that this policy is a historical one, and drug testing services have needed a Home Office licence since the Misuse of Drugs Regulations came into effect in 2001. However, since it is not the Home Office’s job to enforce this policy, organisations like The Loop have relied on the consent of the police to be able to conduct onsite back-of-house drug testing at festivals. 

Back-of-house testing is when drugs that have already been confiscated are tested. This allows festivals to test for any unsafe substances and warn festival goers of any dangerous or mis-sold substances found at the festival. The government has backed back-of-house drug testing services at festivals since August 2021. 

This year was the first since 2014 that The Loop was not able to offer its back-of-house testing service at Parklife. When seeking clarification on the policy days before Parklife, The Loop was told it would need to apply for a Home Office licence if its service was to be compliant with the law.

“The Home Office’s stance seems to be a step back into allowing for agreements with law enforcement to be allowed and instead referring to licensing requirements,” André Gomes, a communication officer for Release, which specialises in drug use and policy, told Dazed. “This is unfortunately within their rights, which creates serious costs for drug testing services.”

A Home Office spokesperson said that the Home Office has always been clear on the law but, as a regulator, it is not responsible for enforcing the law, meaning that festivals and other organisations have been able to get around the policy by getting consent from the police. 

The Loop declined to comment on the Home Office’s decision. 

Gomes said that drug testing is needed to “provide real-time alerts about potentially harmful adulterants and extra-strong batches in circulation, and is often one of the first times that party-goers are having specialist health advice and care related to drug consumption.”

A landmark study, published in the International Journal of International Drug Policy, which analysed the findings of a free, confidential front-of-house testing service by The Loop at the Secret Garden Party festival in 2016, found that the service was potentially life-saving.

The study found that one in five substances was not as sold or acquired, and one in five service users disposed of their drugs post-testing, while one in six moderated their consumption. possession and another one in six moderated their consumption. It also found that test results were shared with friends and other drug users via social media, as well as with emergency services. A similar study from last year found that 45 per cent of samples sold as MDMA tested at English festivals last summer contained no MDMA at all.

“[Release is] disappointed with the further restriction of already limited conditions for drug testing at festivals,” added Gomes. “There are 12 European countries that have drug testing services available, and the UK is increasingly falling behind by resisting these progressive and potentially life-saving policies.”

Director of, Ivan Ezquerra-Romano, told Dazed that, if no “clear and alternative” is given, the move will pose a “massive setback for harm reduction in the UK”.

“Research has shown that onsite drug safety testing contributes to the reduction of drug-related harm and deaths,” he said. “Onsite testing facilities identify substances of concern, which festival goers are likely to dispose of when notified. Then, people who engage with onsite testing facilities learn about harm reduction from the professionals, and, consequently, they are likely to moderate their use.”

While drug testing services may not be widely available this summer, you can still buy at-home drug testing kits online, something which Gomes recommended. “This is an affordable option that tests for adulterants, but not potency or purity – while not the best, it will at least give you some sort of information,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our position hasn’t changed. Drug testing providers must have a licence to test for controlled drugs, including at festivals. We have consistently made this condition clear, and law enforcement have always had a responsibility to uphold this legal requirement. We continue to keep an open dialogue with any potential applicants. Festivals aiming to test drugs off their site this summer must work with the police and a Home Office licensed drug testing provider”.   

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