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How to stay safe when taking drugs at festivals

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Harvey Day
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After recent tragic drug-related deaths at British festivals, a senior harm reduction worker at The Loop tells us how to stay safe

Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth kicked off like so many other festivals up and down the country. Dizzee Rascal headlined the opening day along with a DJ set from Idris Elba – and Craig David and Sean Paul were scheduled to perform the next day.

But, instead, the May festival was cancelled following the tragic drug-related deaths of two festival-goers. They were 18-year-old Georgia Jones and 20-year-old Tommy Cowan. Thirteen others were taken to hospital.

“He was funny. He loved life and he loved his little boy,” Tommy’s father Damian told Portsmouth’s The News. “He was everything. He was a good lad - unfortunately he made a bad choice.”

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“We are aware of a dangerous high strength or bad batch substance on site,” the organisers said in a statement. “Enquiries are being made into the circumstances of what has happened, but we must reiterate our advice to all our customers to responsibly dispose of any substances.”

So what can be done to reduce the chances of these drug-related deaths at UK festivals, especially as we head into the summer music season?

One group that takes a totally up-front and hands-on approach is The Loop, a not-for-profit drug safety service.

Chris Brady, a senior harm reduction worker at The Loop, has been working in the field for more than 15 years. Here he tells ShortList what to be aware of and how to stay safe…

1. Start low – and go slow

“The first thing I’d say, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, is to start low and go slow. Certainly, the purity of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy in this country at the moment is alarmingly high.

“Some ecstasy pills we’ve tested recently have come in at over 300mg of MDMA and if you consider what an average dose would be, at about 100mg, it shows that if people are starting with a large amount of that drug or a full pill, they are potentially putting themselves at a lot of risk.

“Something that’s very easy to remember is to start with a quarter [of a pill] and sip water.

“And going slow applies to alcohol as well: don’t be drinking first thing in the morning or drinking heavily all day.”

2. Don’t mix drugs and alcohol

“When you mix drugs and alcohol, you’re increasing the inherent risks in both. So, for instance, if you’re mixing alcohol and cocaine you’ll create a chemical in your liver called cocaethylene, which is a compound that’ll do your liver damage.

“If you’re mixing drugs like alcohol and ketamine, you’re leaving yourself in a very vulnerable situation because the depressant effects of both drugs will be enhanced.

“Polydrug use in general increases the risk of all the drugs that you’re taking.”

Mixing alcohol and drugs leaves you “very vulnerable”

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3. Know what you’re taking  test it

“The next thing I’d say is the importance of knowing what you’re taking. If you can test, do test. If The Loop are on-site and we’re running a testing service, and you’re considering using drugs, then it makes absolute sense to come and use our service.

“You’ll have your substances tested and you’ll sit with a trained healthcare professional for 15 minutes. We’ll discuss your general drug use and we’ll discuss what risks you may be taking with your health generally and ways of reducing those risks.

“And then we’ll also talk about the specific substance that you’ve submitted for analysis, the risks involved in that substance and the ways of reducing that risk.

“What we need to be clear about is that we’re not saying we can make drugs safe. We can’t make drugs safe; there is inherent risk associated with all drug use. But hopefully we can help people consider their behaviour and make people safe rather than trying to make drugs safe.”

4. Drink water – and look at your pee

“Hydration is very important. Certainly, if you’re taking drugs and dancing in a hot environment it’s important to stay hydrated. And if you’re drinking alcohol that’s going to increase the chances of dehydration.

“But it’s also important that you don’t drink too much. Ecstasy is a drug that will inhibit your body’s ability to expel water from cells so it’s possible to drink too much water, which can bring its own dangers. And that can be fatal.

“If you’re dancing in a hot environment on a hot day in a hot tent and you’re using stimulant drugs like ecstasy, drink about a pint of water sipped throughout the hour.

“Another tip is to keep your eye on the colour of your urine. If it’s particularly dark, you’re probably under-hydrated. If it’s looking like water, you might be drinking too much and you might need to ease off a little bit.”

Stay hydrated - but don’t overdo it if taking ecstasy 

5. Stick with your mates

“Another really simple piece of advice that people sometimes forget is to stick with your mates and look after each other.

“What we find at festivals now through our welfare services is that quite often people’s phones won’t work on the festival site. They’re not picking up reception and they get split up from their friends and get a bit panicky.

“So what’s really good advice is to have a meeting point for different times throughout the day.

“And don’t rely on your phones working. Expect them not to work. Maybe even buy a throw-away phone.”

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Always look out for your mates - and anyone else who looks like they’re struggling

6. Speak up

“If a friend is in trouble, don’t be afraid of asking for help. If they’re unwell and it’s because of drugs or alcohol then it’s really important they get medical attention in a timely fashion.

“And that’s not just for friends, if you see anyone else who looks like they’re particularly struggling then get a steward’s attention, get a medic’s attention maybe even the police’s attention because it’s much better that somebody spends the night in welfare or a night with the medics than being left alone and something really bad happening.”

But if someone goes to a steward or the police, should they be worried they could be searched for drugs themselves?

“I can’t say they wouldn’t do that but I think the priority on a festival site is the welfare of the customers. And if you’re there with your friends and you’re using drugs, that’s got to be the most important thing on your mind.” 

For more information on festival drug testing, visit wearetheloop.org

(Images: Getty)