Jessica Blackwell

Wills, Pills & Thrills

Jessica Blackwell
Wills, Pills & Thrills

I was working at a festival this summer, specifically V festival (I know, cool right?) when I happened to serve a security guard some breakfast. It was roughly 8am, the sausages were sizzling, the customers complaining, and to put it bluntly, this security guard looked shattered. 

When you think of V Festival I doubt your mind jumps to drugs. It’s more likely that you envision a troop of glitter-covered vodka-laden sixteen year olds dancing to the dulcet tones of Craig David. However, as my very tired security guard friend informed me, these sixteen year olds may be on a bit more than strong spirits. Indeed, this security guard had just finished a night shift treating people who had taken a drug likely named Pentylone which had been sold as fake MDMA during the festival. He was dealing with unconscious teens, vomiting teens, essentially very ill teens, all with their friends crying at him to please help. I had to agree with him as he explained, it did sound like a very bad night. 

The festival I have mentioned is not a notoriously ‘druggy’ one. I didn’t mention Boomtown or Creamfields. I’m talking V, known more for its Year 11 clientele then its MDMA. However, the bigger point here is this - no matter what festival, ‘druggy’ or not, security is not working - drugs are still getting in and, of course, drugs are still being taken. So, I ask, what can be done? Well… let me introduce you to ‘The Loop’.

The Loop, as its Director Fiona Measham personally told me, is a ‘pragmatic harm reduction response to the realities of the contemporary drug market’. But, what does that entail? As it states on their website, The Loop is a not for profit Community Interest Company established in 2013 which provides drug safety testing and welfare and harm reduction services at nightclubs, festivals and other leisure events. In 2016, they progressed from their ‘halfway house’ testing (in which they tested substances obtained both from security seizures and amnesty bins as to report back to the emergency services, staff on site and, when appropriate, the wider public in order to inform and monitor drug markets) and launched the Multi Agency Safety Training (MAST) campaign. It is this campaign which introduced ‘front of house testing’ - a system in which individuals could get a personal sample confidentially tested by experienced substance misuse practitioners, without confiscation and without arrest. 

Now, as you might expect, this was met with criticism. David Raynes of the National Drug Prevention Alliance hit back, stating it would ‘normalise drug taking’ and create an ‘illusion of safety’ surrounding the use of recreational drugs. Objectively, his criticism is valid but realistically, maybe less so. Why? Well, let me explain.

Punitive consequences and heightened security measures do little to battle the soaring purity of MDMA (the latest Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales stated that crystals of 81% purity are currently circulating the market) and moreover, do little to prevent drug related deaths. In fact, in 2015 there were more drug related deaths than road accidents. 

The Loop marks a move away from this dogmatic attempt to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the current drug market. Although they have never claimed to reduce drug use, they do however manage far more than a sniffer dog. By testing samples, they can help identify trends in the drug market, report back to emergency services on how to correctly treat those who may need it, reduce on site dealing by identifying misselling, and, by using their ‘front of house testing’, initiate a dialogue with users thus crucially educating those who would be, potentially, otherwise clueless. In conjunction with Vice (whose Facebook page alone has 7.2 million likes) they are managing to educate users via social media introducing campaigns such as the #crushdabwait and #safesesh and so ultimately, they may not prevent drug use but they DO prevent drug related harm - making them a worthy winner of '2017 Best Welfare Provider' if you ask me. So, David Raynes, put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

So, back to you now reader. Yes, you. Most likely a Bristol University student. The University where according to The Sun, 84% of the students have admitted to dabbling with a few recreational drugs here and there. Can we learn from this? More importantly, can the city learn from this? 

Well, apparently the city is learning. Fiona Measham informed me that there are strong hopes that front of house drug testing will be introduced to Bristol's biggest club, Motion. In a forthcoming BBC documentary, we will see talks between The Loop and the West Bristol MP, Thangam Debbonaire, where she agrees with this plan - and it’s not just her in agreement. Motion is in agreement, public health services are in agreement, and importantly, the police are very much in agreement too. And, who can blame them? As Fiona very aptly put it, there’s not enough prison cells in Bristol to arrest everyone who has taken drugs in Motion’.

So, now that we know the city is learning, how about you? There is a fundraiser for Loop coming to Motion next springtime - think about your city, think about the reality, then ask yourself, would the Loop come in useful? This isn’t a mission to encourage drug use; I'm not trying to argue for the legalisation or even tell you that drug testing is the ideal next step but I am however very convinced by anything that prevents a very real harm, in our society, and, specifically, within Bristol.

But, if none of this has convinced you, let me leave you with a few far more powerful words than I could ever muster. Words from Anne Marie Cockburn, a Mother who lost her 15 year old daughter, Martha, after she took MDMA that was 91% pure:

'There will be those who say it is irresponsible and will encourage drug use - but I believe [The Loop’s] #CrushDabWait campaign could have saved Martha's life had she known about it. Martha wanted to get high, she didn't want to die – no parents wants either, but there's one of those that's preferable to the other.’