AIF Festival Congress debates landmark drugs testing service

AIF Festival Congress debates landmark drugs testing service

The pioneering drugs testing service offered at two UK independent festivals this summer was brought back under the spotlight at this year’s Festival Congress. 

This summer, Secret Garden Party became the first UK festival to trial the testing of drugs onsite. Around 200 patrons used the multi-agency safety testing (MAST) facility, which was brokered in agreement with the local police and council. Festival-goers were offered the tests as part of a 10-minute package of health and safety advice provided by drug harm reduction operation The Loop.

Panellists for the Raising The MAST session, held on day one of the Festival Congress yesterday, were Professor Fiona Measham (Professor of Criminology at Durham University and director of The Loop), Freddie Fellowes (founder, Secret Garden Party), Superintendent Justin Bibby (Cumbria Constabulary and Gold Commander for Kendal Calling), Steve Rolles (senior policy analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation) and Jon Drape (MD, Ground Control).

Measham, who co-founded The Loop three-and-a-half years ago, said: “The idea was to prioritise public safety at venues and to help reduce the risk of harm.”

One in four people who had their drugs tested decided to dispose of them when they found out what was actually in them. 

The initiative was also utilised at Kendal Calling, which reviewed its whole drugs policy following the drugs-related death of a man at the site in 2015.  “The whole idea of having zero tolerance on a festival site is a complete nonsense,” said Drape, who works on festivals including Kendal Calling. “Any police force that thinks you can have zero tolerance at a festival is deluded. You can’t stop drugs getting into a prison, so you’re not going to be able to stop them getting onto a festival site. We needed to look at what we could do to mitigate that.”

Supt Bibby said: “For me, the most important thing is about the minimising the risk of harm of people on that site. The fact that people don’t know what they’re taking can be incredibly dangerous.

“We will do everything we possibly can to prevent illegal substances getting onto the site, that goes without saying. We take a very pragmatic approach. There are amnesty bins before you get on site; we will do operations within the site.

“We are not looking for people who are users, we are looking for the people who are doing the supplying and we do all we can to target those suppliers.”

Held at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the sold out two-day conference is the annual flagship event of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) and the largest gathering of independent festival promoters in the UK, attracting more than 400 industry delegates.

In the first session of the day, Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess chatted with Tim Peak’s Nick Fraser about experiences at festivals, the story of the Tim Peaks venue and its connection to independent festival culture. Other speakers included Kilimanjaro Live’s Zac Fox, Sammy Andrews of Entertainment Intelligence and Simon Parkes, who recounted the story of how he bought Brixton Academy for £1 back in the 1980s.

Festival Congress 2016 continues today. The winners of last night’s Festival Congress Awards can be viewed here

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