Is It Possible to Stop Drug Use at Festivals?

Festival season in the UK is drawing to a close once again. Drug use at festivals is also once again being discussed in the media as a result of two separate deaths in the same weekend at two different UK music festivals.

A 17-year-old boy from Greater Manchester, who was attending Leeds Festival, died ‘immediately’ after taking drugs according to Yorkshire Police. He was taken out of the festival to hospital via ambulance but was sadly pronounced dead shortly after arrival. Two 17-year-olds have been arrested by the police for drugs offences in relation to the incident.

This tragic news came just hours after a 26-year-old man collapsed and died at Cheshire-based dance music festival Creamfields.

Leeds Festival’s Police Commander, Chief Superintendent Keith Gilert said in response to the recent tragedy that there is “no safe way to take drugs”.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Cheshire Police said: “Officers continue to take positive action against those who risk others’ lives by attempting to bring illegal drugs onto site”.

He added that “The Constabulary would like to remind people that drug supply at Creamfields will not be tolerated, and officers will take robust action where necessary”.

At last year’s Creamfields, a total of 76 drug-related arrests were revealed by Cheshire Police.

However, it is seemingly impossible for police and festival security to totally eliminate drug taking and the general supply of drugs into music festivals around the UK.

Tactics such as the introduction of drug-detecting dogs and amnesty/surrender bins at the entrance to festivals such as Leeds and Creamfields, prove to be only somewhat effective. The bottom line is that drugs still manage to find their way into these festivals, despite security measures.

Where there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

This general rule-of-thumb of the drug trade makes the ‘war on drugs’ seem like a futile effort for the most part.

There will always be opportunistic drug dealers who see these music festivals as the biggest payday of their year.

What is more shocking is that the purity of drugs sold at these festivals, such as MDMA, is often reported to be quite low, further increasing risks to health.

Drug use at festivals isn’t a new phenomenon however, in fact it is one that dates back to festivals such as Woodstock in the 1960s.

The times may have changed but drug taking has continued. The only aspect of drug taking that seems to have changed, is the kind of drugs being taken.

For example, it seems that LSD being taken by ‘hippies’ in the sixties has been replaced by MDMA being taken by ‘ravers’ from the nineties onwards.

Whilst the police continue to maintain their operations, there is a growing consensus in the Western world that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed and that actually, drug liberalisation may be a more effective, safer and sensible way forward as opposed to a total zero-tolerance on drugs.

Drug liberalisation would also serve as a huge blow to the black market, whilst potentially pumping billions of pounds into the national economy. In other words, it would be a win for the ‘consumers’ but a big loss for the dealers.

That being said, legalisation of certain drugs would not mean that a dealer’s stock would simply dissapear over night but it would present a legal, less complicated and possibly more affordable alternative to doing business with drug dealers. Law enforcement would also benefit from not having to use their funds and rescources to target drug crime.

If you look at substance prohibition with a historical perspective, it is safe to say that the prohibition of alcohol in the United States was mostly a catastrophic failure, turning respected citizens into ‘criminals’ over night whilst effectively giving actual criminals a new business that they could exploit and profit from.

However, there is possibly a significant setback to legalisation. If legalisation meant that whatever drug became legalised became more expensive due to it being taxed by the government, then consumers might still opt to buy their drugs from a dealer, if that dealer sold their stock for a cheaper price than the government’s price of course.

This is all speculation however, with only a handful of places in the world being noted for having such truly liberal drug policies.

Cannabis legalisation is the most obvious form of drug liberalisation. The legalisation of that drug in particular has given the Netherlands a huge tourism boost through the country’s famous cannabis coffeeshops, whilst the spreading legalisation of cannabis across the United States has generated billions of dollars for the state economies.

Of course, not all drugs are justifiable. The Dutch-model of creating a clear distinction between soft, safer drugs such as cannabis and harder, more-damaging drugs such as heroin seems like a fair way forward.

This fierce international debate on drugs liberalisation has extended to music festivals in recent years. There are notable proponents of safer drug taking, such as the Secret Garden Party.

The Secret Garden Party has become the first UK festival to provide drug purity testing to its ticketholders, without the threat of confiscating the tested drugs afterwards.

This scheme has been introduced with the co-operation of local police and over 80 “substances of concern” were tested in the first day, with a quarter of the tested drugs being voluntarily disposed of by “clients” who discovered that the tested drugs were not what they thought they had bought.

The tested drugs that were not voluntarily disposed of, were not forcibly seized by the organisers of this scheme after testing took place.

Calls for safer drug taking at festivals have been echoed not just by certain festival organisers but by some artists performing themselves at festivals.

Major Lazer’s Diplo and Jillionaire in 2013 called for young people to be taught how to take drugs safely at festivals.

In a past interview with Rolling Stone, Jillionaire said: “It’s going to sound weird but we need to teach kids how to do drugs, the same way we teach them about drinking responsibly and having safe sex”, adding that “Instead of acting like drugs don’t exist, acknowledge that drugs will be at a festival and address them”.

Diplo insisted that electronic dance music was not to blame for drug use at festivals, blaming “conservative culture” and adding that “[drugs are] going to happen. You can’t control it. Persecuting a festival is not going to help because kids are going to do them regardless. Hell, they’ll do them in their houses”.

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