Eleven people have died at festivals in the last two years even though drug use is not increasing, suggesting that illegal substances now have higher levels of toxicity.
Currently, drug testing facilities are offered at an extremely limited number of nightclubs and festivals by The Loop, a charity and the sole provider of such services.
Policing minister Nick Hurd said the Home Office was not standing in the way of what he called “local operating decisions”.
He said: “The fact that chief constables in Avon, Cumbria, Somerset and Hampshire have stepped forward and said ... we do want to cooperate with this, sends a strong signal.”
He added that he had spoken personally to Avon and Somerset Police Constable Andy Marsh and he was “very clear that this is the right thing to do and that he is very confident about his legal position in doing so”.
The proof of this was that a number of festivals are already using the testing facilities, he said, adding that he would be checking whether police forces were correctly informed.
Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, who brought the debate to the House of Commons last week, said: “Giving everyone clear information about the substances they intend to consume helps reduce risk and prevent harm – we can do it for alcohol and we can do it for other drugs within the current legal frameworks.
“Clarity from the government is a win, but we can go even further. Let’s make it a requirement that festivals and, if possible, nightclubs, have to ensure there is drug safety testing available for every event they run. I will be holding the minister to this commitment. Let’s save more lives and protect more people from harm.”
Fiona Measham, director at The Loop and professor of criminology at Durham University, welcomed Mr Hurd’s comments.
“Now we need support, funding, national guidelines and accredited staff training so drug safety testing can roll out across the UK and is fit for purpose,” she said.
She added some festivals, police and public health organisations have been fully supportive of the testing facilities, but others had been “understandably cautious” of the “cutting-edge new harm reduction service” which relies on an “emergent evidence base”.
She said: “Getting a government statement like this gives the green light to other festivals, police and local authorities to follow suit and for us to expand our services to the next level.”
The Loop test drugs for toxicity and strength with police officers in close attendance. Recent testing led to 20 per cent of people disposing of their drugs after receiving the test results, while 40 per cent said they would use a smaller dose, the charity said.
Such facilities have been provided in Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands for many years.
By contrast, in the UK, for nine out of 10 people who used The Loop’s services, it was the first time they have received drug education from a specialist.
During the parliamentary debate Ms Debonaire said that these “lifesaving initiatives” were being prevented because some local authorities and police forces are still uncertain over whether it is legal.
She added that the government’s “just say no” approach with regards to drug use, which refuses to acknowledge there is anything else government could do to reduce harm, is not working.
However, she stressed that all drugs, legal or otherwise have risks, “but people still use them” and called for more information to be provided about the risks they can pose.
The MP for Bristol West criticised the advice the government has provided on this issue. Last year, she claimed, a minister said “one should never take anything that you can’t buy in a high street chemist”.
She noted that heroin, fentanyl and tramadol are sold at UK chemists and that alcohol is a leading cause of cancer and a contributing factor to violence and depression.
“This is about how we can put safety first, take dangerous substances out of circulation, save lives and make festivals safer and more pleasant places,” she said at the start of the debate. “And probably undermine drug dealers as well. And why would we not want to do that?”
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