Above: Photos of We Are The Loop at work at Boomtown last year. For more give this documentary a spin.
There were splashes in the media last year about harm reduction advice being dispensed at Electric Picnic for the first time. Lazy hacks ushered a sigh of relief – here was a new element to add to well worn column inch filling codology about bog roll and fashionable wellies. Rashers Tierney looks at the need to encourage safer sessioning at festivals and chats to some pioneers in the field out foreign.
Hundreds gathered in Dublin Castle last May for the Club Health conference – the largest harm reduction and nightlife conference in the world. Keynote speaker Adam Winstock launched the results of his annual Global Drug Survey. A major take away was the spiraling quality of drugs, that and the fact that the Irish are a nation of total moon units. Out of 120,000 something respondents, our little rock has the highest rate of MDMA consumption in the world.
Despite our medal winning escapades in the international gurning games, our approach to harm reduction around what is a relatively harmless party drug suffers under prohibitionist attitudes, association with crime which sees us linger well behind steps taken elsewhere to keep partying people safe when they are snorting ground up yokes off a recently cracked Samsung screen at gaga o’clock in the morning.
According to the 2017 National Drug strategy ecstasy use among 15-34 year olds rose sharply from 0.9% in 2010/11 to 4.4% in 2014/15. This carried a promise of “establishing a working group to examine the evidence in relation to early harm reduction responses, such as drug testing, amnesty bins and media campaigns.”
Yet if moves to sort out injection rooms in Dublin’s city centre have been frustrated for millions of years by planning, local business alliances, schools and NIMBY politicians then it should be no surprise that there’s no move on anything remotely resembling testing or even useless drug amnesty bins at festivals.
Last year saw a swathe of newspaper coverage about harm reduction services at Electric Picnic. This consisted of a manned stall ran by the Anna Liffey drug project in the welfare tent with about 40 volunteers operating in shifts, talking to people who approached them about drug use.
Tony Duffin CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project described the organisation’s strategic goals at festivals.
“We aim to build on our work providing highly skilled volunteer drug workers at music festivals; to work on a one-to-one basis, providing harm reduction information and interventions, to keep people who use drugs as safe as possible.”
Anna Liffey had offered to provide harm reduction services to Irish festival promoters as far back as May 2016. Tony Duffin appeared on the Hot Press website appealing to them saying:
“We’d like to work with them to provide sensible harm reduction advice beforehand on social media and then in leaflet form at events. The only cost to them would be the printing.”
There’s been scant uptake of this generous shout apart from Electric Picnic.
Help Not Harm also had a presence at Electric Picnic in the past, working to relieve pressure from medics around drug related issues and providing tea, water and beds. Fergal Eccles is their Deputy Director and also helps co-ordinate Students For Sensible Drug Policy.
“Festivals are one of the most intensive situations for a drug service as you can imagine, and it really put what people refer to as ‘the drug problem’ into context. Many festival goers find themselves in horrible distressed situations and have nowhere to go, nowhere comfortable or to rest their mind.”
He says the service is entirely non medical, but takes the burden off the medic tent significantly.
“We service hundreds of festival goers, who give amazing feedback. We also carry out drug trend surveys and offer non-judgemental advice counseling. This allows us to help prevent people from entering a drug emergency.”
The information provision seen at Electric Picnic is the result of brave moves at other Festival Republic controlled events in the UK. Where they introduced similar interventions including drug testing at festivals with We Are The Loop.
So, what could harm reduction at festivals look like? I first encountered drug harm reduction services wandering around a grim campsite at Belgium’s appropriately called Dour festival in 2008. A ramshackle local service was handing out leaflets, as well various nasal cleaning sprays, various liquid drops and straws that left me perplexed til I copped the accompanying unbiased advice. In more recent years, it has gone further with front and back of house drug testing happening in the UK.
There’s relatively little swell of chorus from festival goers or promoters themselves standing up and demanding these type services. The general culture of harm reduction ain’t so hot here – apart from some random as fuck bursts from Humans Of The Sesh -when a page dedicated to sessioning is dispensing some of the more upfront attitude free advice about drugs in a country that there is a massive awareness problem.
None of this is all that surprising. Some of Dublin’s major techno clubs take place in venues that charge for water. Worse is watching the conflagrations on social media anytime someone points this out, with other clubbers accusing those that highlight the problem with being penny pinching cheapskates.
In some parts of the world, developing a harm reduction culture came from within dance music communities themselves. Warren Michelow is a veteran of the North American rave scene first time round. He’s been working on harm reduction and drug checking at festivals and raves since 2001 with MindBodyLove.
“The harm reduction response in many ways was a need that was obvious to many but that arose from the leadership of a few individuals who went the next step and actually started organising people,” he tells me.
Warren literally wrote the playbook on testing at festivals in Canada. Financed partly by British Columbia’s provincial government’s Ministry of Health, it outlined a widely referenced array of testing methods and legal protocols and logistics to follow.
“The timing was also right in terms of the first tech boom on the US west coast bringing new energy and resources into the electronic dance music scene and psychedelic culture.”
Canada’s scene alone produced the Toronto Raver Information project, MindBodyLove and Island Kids in while across the border DanceSafe carried the harm reduction flame.
“At first it was all underground and the police would shut us down if they caught us doing pill testing as they saw this as “encouraging” drug use. At the time, most harm reduction was directed at injection drug users and was framed in terms of reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C so it probably seemed suspect to the police who saw the ravers as a very different scene.”
One really important moment in the pill testing movement’s trajectory was a New Year’s Eve rave where MindBodyLove defied police attempts to shut them down as there had been several “ecstasy-related” deaths of young people in the previous few weeks. This ballsy approach led to the crew being invited to a national meeting of narcotics cops. While some continued with raised cold eyebrows around testing, others thawed.
“They quietly supported us over the following years by allowing us to do the testing under a very strict watch that we were not doing anything sketchy (such as volunteers dealing from behind the info table) and also by providing us up-to-date information on what drugs were going around in the time and area where we would be doing outreach at a big event.”
Warren reflects that ravers weren’t left to fight the harm reduction battle on their own. His little community’s issues were massively overshadowed by the dark forces of a huge crack crisis and spiraling HIV epidemic among intravenous drug users in Vancouver throughout the 90s and 00s. The rash of deaths due to the fentanyl crisis in Canada has more recently put the need to do drug testing right at the top of people’s minds in the health care and police in Western Canada.
“In western Canada and elsewhere we have been able to entrench the idea that a properly run festival has not just first aid and security but also has a sanctuary/safe-space for trippers and harm reduction services and outreach at a minimum. As the situation has changed and doing drug checking has become a more legitimate idea, so the support from the authorities has grown.”
For Warren working with progressive dance music promoters was crucial in galvanizing support for the harm reduction movement. This meant navigating the tricky landscape of how to recognize drug use at events rather than sweeping it under the carpet.
“This bottom up approach created demand-driven pressure to have HR at events and normalized it in the culture so that it became a lot easier to recruit helpful allies in the health sector and make a convincing case to the police as to why what we were doing was about improving health and safety rather than encouraging illegal drug use.”
Ireland has a mad busy festival ecosystem, a hodgepodge of bookers, upstart club brands and promoters. Last summer I pinged several social media accounts reaching out to talk about harm reduction at their events and asking what it would take for festival organisers in Ireland to come out of the closet and make the case that treating drug consumption at festivals is a public health concern rather than a criminal one. Only one person got back on Facebook. They told me they’d be happy to chat but had reservations.
“Would be happy to chat on this but it’s just a bit of a tricky one at present in Ireland as sometimes promoters speaking very openly about it can be taken the wrong way by authorities. Happy to discuss with you as it’s something we’ve done a lot of research into but might be better to remain anon if that works for you?”
Numbers were exchanged and flung over a few questions but it went no further. The topic is an uncomfortable one for promoters. And why shouldn’t it be? We’ve all heard the rumour mill of smaller festivals getting done over financially by local Gardai seeking excessive overtime or producing the 1935 Dancehall Act. Nails that stand out after all, will be hammered down.
Stefanie Jones is the director of the New York based Drug Policy Alliance’s Party Safer campaign. Her organisation works to end stigma against people that recreationally use chemicals, make drug checking more common place and seek out reform of Joe Biden’s Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (known to most as the Rave act) which makes event organisers culpable for drug use at their events.
Stefanie says its important that the massive social reach of festivals and promoters is used for intelligent messaging around partying before and after events. The Drug Policy Alliance works to bring promoters out of the closet around drug use and involve them in harm reduction work.
“It can be very hard to get festivals involved in harm reduction work. Usually the people behind them have the best intentions and understand the value a harm reduction approach would bring, but feel that making any moves in that direction would threaten their permits or relationships with local agencies.”
I asked her if there are festival organisers out there, who want to come out of the closest, but are in fear of the authorities and how they will react – what would she advise them to do?
“Know really clearly what you want to say and accomplish at your event, and then find as many allies as you can that will support you in your vision. Harm reduction organizations are obviously the place to start – they can help finesse the language and the approach. Be open to their ideas; they’re the experts in this in the same way you’re an expert on what’s right for your crowd.”
One UK based festival that did come out of the harm reduction closet with a bang was Boomtown. It’s costumed crowd is an otherworldly mix of just out of school rude boys coked out of it to road roap, wizened old skool junglists, pirate patched hippies and tunic wearing wizards. Last year it worked with We Are The Loop and the authorities to run a front of house testing tent at the festival.
The UK has seen a ten fold increase in ecstasy-related deaths from eight in 2010 to 57 in 2015 with a similar five-fold increase in the MDMA content in ecstasy pills analysed in the UK, alongside MDMA crystal circulating at over 80% purity, according to We Are The Loop. Last year the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said testing facilities should be “standard” at festivals so revellers can test the strength and content of drugs they are considering taking.
The queue for the testing tent at Boomtown was large and boisterous, with a sense of mischief in it. Randomers gathered around a massive wall chart explaining the interactions between different chemicals on the side of the tent and chatted.
The process was simple. You handed over some scrapping of your drugs and came back a few hours later for the results after they were forensically test by a team of volunteer Phd students. Then you sat through a brief non-judgemental intervention into your own drug use.
Boomtown has been in the headlines for drug deaths. The Daily Star called it “the most DEBAUCHED festival in the UK” and did what all desperate hack fests do – raided people’s personal Facebook pages to manufacture lurid tales of “hippy crack” accompanied by photos of sleeping young folk with sleazed up captions underneath. However, two out of the four deaths at Boomtown however weren’t your cliched 18 year olds out of school but older party goers with years of experience who succumbed to fatal levels of MDMA.
Anna Wade is the festival’s spokesperson and she’s had some serious shit to cope with in the past.
“We were really fortunate that the local police saw the value in it and were didn’t object to us implementing the drug safety measures to help prevent any further harm, as well as raise really valuable awareness and education on the dangers that can be associated with drug experimentation, especially poly-drug use.”
Last year wasn’t the first time that Boomtown made such an intentional intervention into its community. They’ve experimented with amnesty bins and worked to educate people about the dangers of ketamine and how it was ruining the party atmosphere at the festival. Anna tells me how it worked:
“2014 was the first time we decided to take things into our own hands to try our best to raise awareness on the dangers and, at the time, relatively unknown lasting effects of ketamine abuse, such as the severe bladder damage that it causes. We mainly did this through our social media a well as pulling together as much factual and non-judgemental information we could find to create a fact-sheet and useful contacts for our website.”
Wendy Teasdill, mother of Ellie Rowe, an eighteen year old who died after taking ketamine at the festival in 2013 has returned to the festival’s Speakers Corner twice since appealing for a more open conversation about drugs use. From talking to Anna, it’s clear that the festival itself is doing as much as it can.
“Drugs are a part of society in general, not just occurring at festivals and nightclubs, but all over the country, the world, across all sections of society. To be able to acknowledge this and do something pragmatic about it that could potentially save lives has been a real breath of fresh air. The widespread support for it has been unbelievable.”
Fiona Measham of We Are The Loop has a background in criminology and she’s been studying the rave and club scene for years. She saw the clear utility in extending forensic testing to help reduce drug-related harm at festivals via what’s called Multi Agency Safety Testing. Boomtown last summer was their biggest event to date. They tested 1,100 samples and delivered brief interventions to 2,000 festival heads.
“If we estimate that about half the 50,000 in attendance were taking pills or powders that would mean that about 1 in 25 received harm reduction advice directly from a trained drugs workers. We know from our records that 9 in 10 will never have spoken to a drugs worker before,” she tells me.
“And it really does seem to have an impact. The medical and welfare centres at every festival we have been at have said that their services are notably quieter.”
We Are the Loop were rammed every day at the festival – their presence front and central, with an announcement at the massive opening ceremony and MCs reminded people to head down from dozens of stages.
We Are The Loop provide a service that is useful to the police and medics at festivals and clubs but also sits in an atmosphere of financial cutbacks that is forcing the authorities to rethink how best to deal with these issues and lessen the drain on their resources.
“The police have had to suffer 20% cuts as part of the post-austerity budget cuts from 2010 onwards, including 20,000 fewer police officers, which has led to various forces thinking differently about evidence-based policing and enforcement priorities, including Bristol and Durham.”
“In fact it was the retired police officer who set up the Bristol Drugs Education Project who was pivotal in Boomtown booking The Loop this year,” she tells me. “The police, paramedics and welfare can see how committed our volunteers are to delivering a quality harm reduction service, how hard they work on site, and how we do not take this job at all lightly.”
With such success in the festival fields, We Are The Loop and their partners are upping the ante with a massive crowdfunder to roll out their pop up testing labs to three as yet unnamed UK town centres in what they call a “set of bold yet practical initiatives” that move beyond the rhetoric of zero tolerance that threatens club culture, nightlife and puts recreational drug users at risk.
Let’s hope this is a sneeze that Ireland soon catches.
You can find the crowdfunder for We Are The Loop’s pop up city centre labs here.