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Plan to take drugs at a festival? Do it in Europe…

New research in the US has laid bare the huge variations in the MDMA content of ecstasy pills in circulation internationally, with European festivalgoers having access to the purest pills – and Australians the least.

The research, shared with IQ by drug rehabilitation service American Addiction Centers (AAC), will further fuel calls for widespread festival pill testing, revealing that ecstasy pills in Europe contain, on average, 67.1% MDMA, compared to 16% in the lowest-ranked territory, Australia.

The average pill in North America is 54.2% MDMA – a figure that drops to 35% in the US specifically and 25% in Canada. In Asia, meanwhile, it is 52.9% MDMA, and in Oceania as a whole 47.3%.

The impurity of the ecstasy sold at music festivals has been blamed for many recent fatalities, including those at Time Warp in Argentina, Closeup Forever Summer in the Philippines and Stereosonic in Australia (where promoter Richie McNeill slammed festivalgoers for “poisoning themselves with these cheap, shitty drugs”).

One solution is pill testing – where festivalgoers are allowed to submit drugs for testing to establish their content before consumption – which is already a common practice in the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, and has recently found support from several UK events.

Pill testing: the cure for music’s drug problem?

Pill testing has also been proposed in Australia, although authorities have been reluctant to allow the practice, lest it be seen as a “tacit” acceptance of drug use at festivals – despite AAC’s data suggesting Australians are most at risk from adulterated ecstasy.

Also of concern to harm-reduction advocates is that drug users have become accustomed to said cheap, shitty drugs, meaning they are at risk of overdose when they take the same amount of pure MDMA; for example, of the type growing in prevalence in Europe.

AAC arrived at its conclusions, which can be read in full here, by analysing more than 25,700 records taken between 2005 and 2017 from PillReports.net.

MDMA purity around the world

AAC warns that without a way to test the content of pills, “people have no way to tell what they are taking just by looking at it. New chemical components are being laced with these drugs every year, and the results can be fatal.”

Kendal Calling, one of the UK festivals to invite drugs charity The Loop to facilitate pill testing – properly ‘multi-agency safety testing’ (MAST) – in 2016, repeated the scheme at this summer’s event, finding concrete, malaria medication and insecticide in pills submitted for analysis.

The Loop’s Fiona Measham says her organisation does not condone drug use, but is focused on harm reduction: “We accept that some people will get drugs on site and some people will be planning to take them,” she says, “so what we’re doing is trying to address any potential health problems.

“This is a focus on public health rather than on criminal justice.”


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Support for festival drug testing grows in UK

Respected UK charity the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has called for drug-testing facilities, such as those trialled at Kendal Calling and Secret Garden Party last summer, to be made standard at all music festivals “where drug use is common”.

In a new report, Drug safety testing at festivals and night clubs, released this morning, RSPH says the move, “which is backed by 95% of festival-goers, [would] help minimise the risk of serious health harm as a result of recreational drug use”.

Secret Garden Party became last July became the first British festival to give attendees the chance to test the content of their drugs without fear of recrimination, with Kendal Calling following a week later. Jon Drape, whose Ground Control Productions company works with Kendal Calling, told IQ at the time drug testing is a “no-brainer”, adding around a quarter of those who tested their drugs opted to bin them after discovering their content.

RSPH’s own data suggests a similar figure of almost one in five (18%).

Drug testing at both festivals was undertaken in partnership with nonprofit The Loop, which will also introduce the testing – officially ‘multi-agency safety testing’ (MAST) – at several Festival Republic events this summer, including Reading and Leeds.

“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances”

MAST, or a local variant thereof, is already commonplace in continental Europe, including the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Efforts to introduce drug testing in Australia have been frustrated by local government and police, with festival promoters in New South Wales told they could face prosecution for drug supply.

According to RSPH, the need for pill testing at festivals has become more acute with the rise in strength of the average ecstasy pill. As reported by IQ last May, MDMA use is on the rise across Europe, with a simultaneous increase in the availability of high-MDMA pills and powdered and crystal forms of the drug.

“Given that a large degree of health harm associated with ‘club drugs’ stems from user ignorance of the exact strength and content of pills and powders of uncertain provenance, any measures that increase our knowledge base can be expected to have a positive effect on reducing harm – especially if the provision of such information creates an opportunity to impart information on safer behaviours and risk reduction to the key target population,” reads the RSPH report.

“If drug users can be reasonably sure of what they are actually taking, then they will be better placed to make informed decisions about if and how to take these substances, and so are less likely to have an adverse reaction or overdose as a result.”

MAST, therefore, says RSPH, is a “pragmatic harm reduction measure” which should “become a standard feature of places where drug use is prevalent, such as city-centre nightlife areas and festivals.”


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