Drug use is intrinsically tied to music. Rock stars are some of the few individuals in whom society condones or even encourages illicit drug-taking. Behaviours that would be condemned in some are almost expected from musicians – seen as part of the creative process, perhaps. And mind-altering substances are popular when listening to music, too – from acid-fuelled psychedelia in the 60s, to pill-popping dance culture and even stoner rock, drug taking occurs at music venues, clubs and festivals, and as such it is these locations that are often a focal point for regulatory policies. Fabric nightclub in London temporarily lost its licence after drug-related incidents, and festivals like Boomtown and Kendal Calling have been thrown in to the spotlight in recent years after tragic drug-related deaths occurred onsite. But music venues can also be locations where the conversation around drug harm reduction can be pushed forward, and places where innovative ideas to reduce harm can be trialled.
No drug use is without risk of harm. I say this as a scientist having spent nearly a decade conducting research into the effects of taking various recreational drugs, but I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial statement. We all understand that there are health risks associated with smoking and it’s becoming better understood that this is also true with regards to alcohol. But what is clear when you look at the research around drug-related deaths is that there are a number of factors that influence the likelihood of harm from taking a substance. And given that we’re almost all drug users of one sort or another (whether we like to admit that our pint of beer or glass of wine is a drug or not), it makes sense to ensure that we, as consumers, are minimising the avoidable risks wherever possible. I don’t think this should be a controversial statement either. We do this with alcohol – when we drink spirits we pour smaller measures than when we drink beer, because it’s stronger. And yet there is a social moralising that exists around certain types of drug use that makes people – policy makers, law enforcers, the media – so afraid of doing or saying anything that seems to condone or encourage drug use that steps to reduce harm are baulked at. Steps that could save lives. All of this means that people who choose to take illegal drugs are left in a situation where they are putting themselves in more harm than they need to.
What kind of risks do I mean? There are plenty. The generic nature of a white powder or a pill means that the active compound in the drug you buy could be something quite different from what you expect. The concentration could be different from pill to pill, or between one baggie and the next, and the other compounds it is cut with could be any number of things, from aspirin to baking soda to sugar, or even other psychoactive drugs that could interact with each other in unpredictable ways. When we buy a bottle of beer at a bar, we know how strong it is because it’s printed on the label. Shots of spirits or glasses of wine are a standardised size. And even then it’s easy to misjudge and overdo it. Imagine if every time you ordered a rum and Coke it could contain anywhere between one and 10 shots.
It was fitting, then, that an event called Drugs, It’s Time To Talk was held in the basement of The Jacaranda recently. Organised by students from Liverpool John Moores University and hosted by Mixmag TV presenter Jaguar Bingham, a panel consisting of a DJ, a promoter, a former police officer and a scientist from The Loop joined a packed room to explore the issue of drugs welfare at live music events. The Loop is an organisation that sets up at festivals and other music events to offer a drug testing service (Multi Agency Safe Testing – MAST). You can bring your supply to them and they’ll take a sample and test it so you can find out exactly what’s in the substance you plan to ingest later. Not only that, but when you get the results of the analysis you’ll spend 10 minutes talking to a drugs worker about the contents and the risks of taking the substance in question.
At the moment drug testing facilities like MAST are only on offer at selected festivals – no drug testing provisions exist for urban clubbers and individual venues deal with drugs in a variety of different ways. When it reopened, Fabric was ordered to put in place measures to try and prevent drugs entering the venue. As such, going in is like “going through airport security”, according to Andrew Hill, the promoter on the panel, with clubbers even having to take their shoes off. Other venues nearby might have a cursory bag search, or nothing at all, meaning there’s very little consistency. Stricter security checks may actually increase harm, as they could lead to individuals taking all their drugs before they enter a club rather than spreading out consumption over the night, which paradoxically could lead to a higher risk of people being taken ill inside a venue. As Jens Thomas, the scientist from The Loop pointed out, the likelihood that these measures will prevent any drugs from entering a venue is low – the UK’s prisons are some of the most secure buildings in the country, and yet drugs flow across their borders every day.
Former police officer Denis Moran pointed out that Liverpool has been at the forefront of harm-reduction drug services in the UK for decades. In 1986 our city opened one of the first needle exchange centres in the country (initially housed in a modified toilet), at a time when injecting drug users were seen as deviant and morally corrupt. The conversation around drugs is moving on now; people are becoming more aware of the hypocrisy of morally judging illicit drug users while alcohol use is actively encouraged. Could Liverpool become a city that opens a drug-testing centre to protect its young (and not so young) people who choose to take drugs? Wales is already ahead of England here – they have WEDINOS (Welsh Emerging Drugs And Identification Of Novel Substances project), a postal-based drugs testing services for Welsh residents particularly designed for identifying novel psychoactive substances. WEDINOS provides information to individuals, but also researchers and medics who can better understand what substances are being used where and what harms are linked to different compounds. More recently, Bristol city centre hosted The Loop as the first urban drug testing facility, drawing praise from local politicians, police and venue promoters. It was a one-off, but it shows that city centre testing is viable.
Of course, pill testing is not a panacea. The panel at The Jacaranda all highlighted the need for non-judgemental, evidence-based drug education to be more easily accessible. As we already know with alcohol, even with accurate dosage information accidents can still happen. If you are with a friend who starts to feel unwell after taking something, don’t be put off seeking help immediately because of the legal status of the substance – everyone’s priority will be their welfare. Pills being tested by The Loop are containing higher concentrations of MDMA than ever before, which puts people at risk of overdosing. Their advice is to take a small amount first to find out how it affects you, or “Crush Dab Wait”, as they put it. No drug use is without risk, but we can and should do more to prevent avoidable dangers, like we do with alcohol and tobacco.
Suzi Gage is a lecturer at the University Of Liverpool and a researcher investigating the links between drug use and mental health. She also makes the Say Why To Drugs podcast, providing non-judgemental, evidence-based information about recreational drugs and their effects.
If you’d like to find out more about work done by The Loop head to wearetheloop.org.