By Sam Tarry, Labour MP for Ilford South – BANNING on-site drug testing at music festivals could cost lives this summer.
Testing confiscated drugs and warning festivalgoers of any safety issues reduces the risk of overdoses and allows adults to make informed choices about their actions.
Holding tests in tents and temporary buildings on festival sites allows a quicker turnaround for checking dangerous substances, helping lower the risk of death and damage to people’s health.
It’s a near decade-long-established practice, and it undoubtedly saves lives.
However, a dangerous Home Office edict insists that festivals now need bureaucratic licences in order to perform this crucial safety check.
To ban these tests at the height of the summer music festival scene, is a dereliction of the government’s ‘duty of care’. The government have lost all common sense.
Festival organisers like Parklife boss Sacha Lord, musicians of the stature of Norman Cook and Billy Bragg, bands like Metronomy and cross party MPs – including Labour, SNP, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green members – have joined forces to remove this threat.
The government has tied the hands of festival organisers by effectively preventing them from alerting revellers and the emergency services to the presence of dangerous substances.
Until very recently, if on-site tests showed that a drug was a serious threat to health, ‘push notifications’ would be sent to festivalgoers, warning them that the substance was dangerous and should not be taken.
Since 2014 festival organisers have tested drugs, confiscated by the police or security, in a cabin on site, in this way. In 2018 the Home Office suggested that “it would not stand in the way of drug testing at festivals and clubs” as part of a proactive harm reduction strategy, witnessed by MPs and supported by several police forces including Avon & Somerset and Greater Manchester Police.
But a spectacularly ill-thought diktat from the Home Office states that festivals must seek special licences to deliver that service.
This can take more than three months to arrange, at a significant cost to festivals.
Furthermore, for these tests to be conducted, government legislation requires them to take place inside permanent buildings, despite festivals almost exclusively being staged on temporary sites, with tents and stages set up for the purpose of that temporary festival site.
In short, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
The reality is that the rule change spells the end of on-site testing and workable drugs harm reduction policies at festivals.
With Glastonbury having just taken place and other festivals due this summer like Boardmasters, Boom Town, Secret Garden Party, Creamfields and Reading, it’s highly irresponsible to strip away that protection.
Already there have been reports about the organisers of Leeds and Reading Festivals having to conduct the tests off-site, in accordance with licence requirements.
Inevitably that would make for a much less effective drugs control policy, with festival organisers unable to operate the checks within the event space, meaning harmful drugs may go unchecked.
This is not a debate about the desirability of drug taking, a call for decriminalisation, or even seeking a change in the law.
The simple fact remains that people will take drugs at festivals this summer.
Yet, the Home Office is showing scant regard for the wellbeing of festivalgoers by leaving event organisers without a means of flushing out dangerous substances.
However, there’s still time for the Home Secretary to abandon this reckless policy shift.
A failure to do so, could see revellers taking unsafe drugs, with potentially tragic consequences.
Preventable deaths or festivalgoers being taken seriously ill and suffering life-changing harm after taking dangerous batches of untested drugs, would be utterly devastating. Even last weekend at least two young people died after taking drugs at festivals, that could well have been prevented if they had known the dangers and strengths of those drugs through on site testing.
You would hope that such tragedies would almost certainly provoke a legislative reaction from the government.
However, the Home Office has shelved a positive, grown up, sensible approach – one that has been used for over a decade and saved countless lives.
There is an immeasurably better chance of averting these catastrophes, if the government will only allow festivals to restore “back-of-house” drugs testing.
That way, confiscated substances can be checked for strength, contaminants and to make sure they’re not being mis-sold.
Then, if problems are found a warning can be circulated to festival-goers.
Decades of hard work by so many in the entertainment sector have made music festivals safe spaces.
However, removing the safety valve of on-site drugs testing, puts that in jeopardy.
It’s also so unnecessary.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has yet to make clear what the logic is behind this ban.
So far, all we’ve heard from the government are spurious briefings that there has been ‘no change” in policy.
Licenses for the on-site testing have always been needed, we are told.
It flies in the face of what’s now been told to those involved in staging festivals, who have supplied drug testing at their events since 2014, free from these overly stringent rules.
The Home Office has moved the goalposts.
However, simply agreeing to suspend or delay the rule change until after the summer, could save lives.
A moratorium on the ban until after the festival season is over would at least ensure safe drug testing continues this summer.
Allowing MPs to properly scrutinise drugs control policy at music events would be a sensible way forward.
The Home Secretary has a ‘duty of care’ to those attending our festivals this summer.
There’s no rational case whatsoever for this knee-jerk ban, we need common sense to prevail.