Bestival to offer drug testing facilities for first time in bid to prevent more drug-related deaths

'Initiatives like this are undoubtedly saving lives in today’s festival climate'

Mattha Busby
Friday 01 June 2018 17:06 BST
The event attracts tens of thousands of people every year
The event attracts tens of thousands of people every year (Getty)

One of Britain’s biggest festivals is to provide drug-testing facilities for the first time this summer in the wake of fatalities at similar events recently, The Independent can reveal.

Bestival, a four-day highlight of the music calendar in Dorset that attracts more than 50,000 people, will offer attendees facilities to analyse recreational substances to see whether they contain dangerously high levels of intoxicants or have been cut with something poisonous, without fear of being arrested.

Organisers were forced to defend their drug policy last year after Louella Michie, 25, died after taking recreational drugs.

“In the interests of public safety, Bestival has always strongly advised festivalgoers to avoid taking any illegal substances,” a Bestival spokesperson told The Independent.

“However, harm reduction and customer welfare are our priorities, so we are working with agencies to explore all public health options to ensure audience choice and safety.”

Superintendent Mike Rogers, Dorset Police gold commander for Bestival, said: “We take the issue of drug use and supply very seriously and at last year’s event, officers arrested 24 people for possession with intent to supply drugs.

“Having built upon our experiences of policing Bestival in 2017, public safety continues to be paramount and we are exploring all safety options with our partners to ensure the event is a safe environment for all.”

Bestival’s move follows calls from experts and campaigners to provide such facilities at all such UK events after two people died and 13 others were taken to hospital at Mutiny Festival in Hampshire last weekend, amid reports of high-strength silver Audi ecstasy tablets being in circulation.

Louella Michie, the daughter of former Coronation Street and Taggart star John Michie, who died after a drug overdose at Bestival in 2017
Louella Michie, the daughter of former Coronation Street and Taggart star John Michie, who died after a drug overdose at Bestival in 2017 (PA)

Over the same weekend, testers from nonprofit provider The Loop at Love Saves The Day festival in Bristol found one in eight “ecstasy” tablets bought by festivalgoers contained unwanted substances. Pills sold as MDMA actually had more than 100mg a strong dose – of psychoactive substance pentylone inside them. The findings prompted them to put out warnings on social media and on signs around the site.

“Initiatives like this are undoubtedly saving lives in today’s festival climate,” said Tom Paine, director at Love Saves The Day.

Portsmouth council’s Conservative Party group leader, Donna Jones, said there should have been drug testing at Mutiny Festival.

Decades of zero-tolerance drug policies have failed to prevent young people experimenting with party drugs such as ecstasy, with a proportionately small but regular number paying the price with their lives every year.

Proponents of testing argue it prevents users from overdosing or ingesting noxious substances, as otherwise they are putting their lives in the hands of dealers, who sometimes make them too potent or mix them with dangerous additives.

Drug deaths are currently at an all time high, with at least 3,744 in England and Wales in 2016, putting the UK’s rate among the worst in the developed world.

Secret Garden Party credited drug testing for reducing drug-related hospital admissions by 95 per cent, while Boomtown credited it for bringing down drug-related medical incidents onsite by 25 per cent.

The success of harm prevention methods elsewhere, such as the Netherlands, has led campaigners to call for a new approach based on preventing the worst happening, instead of seeking to punish users through the criminal justice system.

However, it was unclear on Friday whether other major festivals would follow suit and offer testing facilities to attendees. Some have said they would only provide the service if they were given a Home Office licence. However, other festivals have acted in partnership with local police forces and councils to lay on the service.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “No illegal drug can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them.”

London Grammar, Silk City and M.I.A. will headline Bestival, a boutique event which for the first time will take place over the first weekend of August. It was traditionally the last major festival in the summer calendar, but opted to move after rain blighted the under-capacity event last year.

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