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Music Festivals: Drug Safety Testing

Volume 644: debated on Friday 6 July 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

I rise to speak about drug safety testing at music festivals. I start by letting all hon. and right hon. Members know that this is not a debate about legalising drugs. We could have that debate, but not today. This is about how we can put safety first, take dangerous substances out of circulation, save lives, make festivals safer and more pleasant places, and probably undermine drug dealers as well—and why would we not want to do that?

In May this year, in Bristol, the much loved annual Love Saves The Day festival came to town. It was sunny, loads of people enjoyed themselves—and nobody died. I believe that this is in part because the festival organisers worked with Avon and Somerset police and with Bristol City Council to ensure that the Loop drug safety testing project, with its trained scientists and drug counsellors, was able to operate on-site.

My hon. Friend made the most important point—nobody died. At so many other festivals, many young people are losing their lives.

My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that I am coming on to. The contrast between Love Saves The Day and another festival that weekend was that nobody died in Bristol while at the other festival there was no drug safety testing, and sadly—tragically—two people did die and 15 others were hospitalised.

The Loop operates a model called MAST—multi-agency safety testing—that was developed by Dr Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University and co-director of the Loop. I pay tribute to her and to all the people who work with her, and to others who help to make this possible—as well as to Love Saves The Day, of course.

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Fiona Measham, who is my constituent, and her organisation the Loop. I spoke at its training day recently and was struck by the professionalism, hard work and dedication, and the high level of training, of the scientists and medical practitioners who do that job on a voluntary basis because they believe it keeps people safe.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is about safety, and the work is done with skill and care.

The Loop introduced multi-agency safety testing—MAST—to the UK in the summer of 2016. From 2010 onwards, Professor Measham had shadowed academics, police and Home Office scientists who tested drugs on site at festivals primarily for evidential and intelligence purposes. She saw the value of extending that forensic testing to reduce drug-related harm on site through the provision of front-of-house testing or drug checking, as has happened for decades in other European countries. In 2013, the Loop conducted halfway-house testing, whereby samples of concern were obtained from agencies on site at festivals and nightclubs, and test results were then reported back to all agencies in order to inform service provision and better monitor local drug markets, which is so important if we are going to protect people.

That went further in 2016 with the introduction of MAST at the Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling—for hon. Members who are not aware, those are festivals—by adding the general public to this information exchange. Although that was the first time that a drug safety testing service was available at a festival in the UK, it was built on evidence from similar services that have been running successfully in the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Austria for a number of years.

MAST is a multi-agency collaboration. Samples of substances of concern are provided by on-site agencies such as security, the festival organisers, the police or individuals who are intending to consume those substances. They are given a unique identifier number and return about half an hour later to get the test results. Those substances are tested by PhD chemists who are highly qualified and trained, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, using four types of forensic analyses and linked to a computer database containing a regularly updated reference standard library of all known legal and illegal substances, including new psychoactive substances, also known as legal highs.

People return with their unique identifier number and are given the test results as part of a 15-minute individually tailored brief intervention by an experienced healthcare worker. Harm reduction information is contextualised with people’s medical and drug-using history, as well as the test results. No drugs are returned to service users. I want to emphasise this: service users do not receive drugs back from the Loop. Almost all samples are destroyed during testing and any leftover particles are disposed of by the police at regular intervals throughout the festival. I have seen the complicated bits of kits they use to ensure that absolutely no one gets their hands on something.

A police presence is welcomed in the Loop lab throughout the day. That allows the Loop to share information and intelligence onsite, which can help to spread messages about dangerous substances in circulation. For that to work, the police and local authorities such as Bristol City Council agree to a tolerance zone of non-enforcement in and around the testing venue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that with drugs at festivals, as with a whole range of issues, taking the attitude that we should just say no and refuse to acknowledge that there is anything we could or should do apart from that is abrogating our responsibility to keep our citizens safe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I certainly agree that the policy of just saying no has a huge number of limitations, one of them being that it does not seem to be working. If we take the corresponding example of sexual abstinence, “just say no” was promoted as a method of keeping teenagers from getting pregnant in America for many years. That has demonstrably failed, and there are similar examples of why it does not work for drugs either.

The non-enforcement zone just around the testing venue allows service users to engage fully and productively. Drug safety testing does not assist in the supply of drugs or condone or encourage drug use; I want to reiterate that. There is no safe level of consumption of any drug, and that includes the legal ones of alcohol and tobacco. Giving information is what helps people to make safer choices.

All those who use the service are, by definition, already in possession of a substance. If the drug is not tested, the person concerned will probably consume the drug without any information at all; if it is tested, they may consume it if they have more of the same substance, but with more information about what is in it so they can make a safer choice; or they may consume a smaller dose than they would have otherwise; or they may not consume it all. In many cases, people hand in more of the same substance, along with helpful intelligence for the police and drugs agencies about it.

I am concerned about drugs on the streets of city centres. Does my hon. Friend agree that many police forces would welcome the opportunity to explore safety testing in city centres across the UK, particularly on student nights out or at weekends?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would dearly love there to be provision for drug safety testing in the centres of Bristol, Swansea or Manchester so that people who are intending to take substances—they are going to do that anyway—can have safety information and make safer choices. As I said, such testing often takes dangerous substances out of circulation and disrupts drug dealers’ business models, which is something I am very keen on doing.

The Loop usually finds that one in 10 tested substances are not what the user thought they were—unfortunately, those drugs can turn out to include concrete, boric acid and various other unpleasant substances. One in two service users, after hearing about the strength of their sample and its dosage, state that they will take a smaller quantity of the drug in future. One in five people dispose of further substances in their possession—that is important as it takes out of circulation something dangerous that otherwise would not only have remained in circulation but would have been consumed.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although drug use in this country is relatively static, drug deaths are actually rising? That can only be attributed to an increase in the toxicity of those drugs, and we need young people to have that information. If they are going to take drugs, we need them to be aware that the drugs they take might be toxic.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Drug use is not increasing, but drug-related deaths are—they are the highest they have ever been, according to campaigning organisations. I find it troubling that young people are taking things when they do not know what is in them, and the message “just say no” is clearly not working. We need to think again about how we keep young people safe.

I will not go into detail about the various aspects of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that I would like to see changed—that is for another day. Clearly, however, some police forces, local authorities and festival organisers are finding ways to have a formal agreement and memorandum of understanding about the Loop providing drug safety information. Other authorities are not so clear, which means that people are dying—these are not just young people; some who have died at festivals of drug-related causes have been nearer my age, but such deaths are tragic at whatever age they occur.

According to data provided to me by the Loop, one in three people at clubs and festivals take illegal drugs—as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said, this is also about clubs and city centres. One in 20 16 to 24-year-olds have used MDMA, sometimes known as ecstasy, in the past year. MDMA makes up the majority of drugs that need testing at festivals—55% of all drugs tested at Love Saves the Day in Bristol were MDMA. However, the strength of that MDMA and the potential risks of death and serious harm are rising alarmingly. That was confirmed by Bristol City Council’s drugs lead, Jody Clark, and I thank Jody for his pioneering work, his bravery and his commitment to the safety of young people.

As has been said, drug use is not increasing yet drug-related deaths are. However, let me reiterate that at Love Save the Day, nobody died. That same month, at another festival where there was no drug safety testing, there were 15 hospital admissions due to drugs and two young people died. That has happened at other festivals as well. In a Bristol nightclub earlier this year, where there is currently no drug safety testing, there was a death from a Tesla MDMA tablet, and there have been deaths at other clubs across the country. Tesla pills are high-potency, and contain 240 mg of MDMA, compared with the current average of 120 mg. That in turn compares with the 1990s dosage, when 50 to 80 mg was the average.

Would it not be better if we could prevent that harm, and if the parents of those young people—they were mostly young people—never had to hear the words of every parent’s nightmare? Is it enough just to say “just say no”? Preaching abstinence in sexual activity as a means of preventing pregnancy demonstrably fails. Preaching abstinence in drug use is also not working, and neither is the advice that I heard a Minister give in this Chamber last July, which was that one should never take anything that cannot be bought in a high-street chemist. For a start, heroin can be prescribed, and indeed is consumed in high street chemists under certain circumstances. Other very strong, very addictive and very dangerous drugs, such as Tramadol and Fentanyl, are also prescribed in high street chemists. Therefore, just saying that what is provided and prescribed in a high street chemist is safe and everything else is not is not helpful information for young people. They can work this stuff out.

Alcohol, entirely legal, is provided in this very place, yet it is deadly for many. It is a leading cause of breast and bowel cancer—cause, not correlation—and a contributing factor to violence and depression. But at least with alcohol there is information and regulation. For consumers of illegal substances this does not exist. I believe people would prefer to know what they were consuming. Ironically, drug safety testing, such as that by the Loop, means that people intending to consume illegal drugs at festivals are given much more safety information and options for referral to treatment than those consuming the legal drug of alcohol at festivals. I would like that to be corrected as well, but that is for another day.

Drug safety testing takes dangerous substances out of circulation, reduces risk, prevents harm and makes festivals and clubs safer and nicer places to be. All drugs, legal or otherwise, have risks, but people still use them. When they know what is in a substance they are intending to take, this gives them information. Again, this applies whether they are legal or illegal. When an illegal substance is tested by trained scientists via a project like the Loop, people cannot get that sample back. Instead, they get accurate information about the drug’s content and safety.

Giving everyone clear information about the substances they intend to consume does not make it easier to take illicit substances and nor does it eliminate all risk—alcohol licensing and labelling still do not prevent all alcohol-related harms—but the Bristol experience has shown that providing information about illegal drugs can be done within our current laws. Other police forces, councils and festivals are not clear on how to do this, however, and here the Government can help. There is no need to change or review the law, just a need to provide clarity on the grey areas that some police forces find difficult and to provide formal recognition of the status quo and ensure that all relevant parties—police forces, festival organisers, local councillors and licensing bodies—know it.

Clubs could be asked to contribute to the drug safety testing in city centres that my colleagues and I wish to see. It could be a part of their licences that they should contribute to funding and work with the police, the council, public health and drug projects to help save lives and take dangerous substances out of circulation. In an ideal world, what I would like, and what I would like the Minister to consider, is that all licences for such festivals, and if possible for all clubs, are made conditional on the availability of drug safety testing, and for licence holders to work with police, public health, the night time economy, drug treatment and safety organisations to fund and ensure this. The Government need to get behind this and not stand on the side lines. Drug safety testing deserves Government clarity and support. Young people deserve clarity and support. The parents of young people deserve clarity and support.

I will conclude by asking what I hope are two simple questions of the Minister. I hope he is able to answer them today, but if not I would be very willing to meet him to discuss them further. Will he commit to supporting formal recognition that drug safety testing is a matter for local police forces, and that the current system of local memorandums of understanding between the police, the testing organisation, the event management and other stakeholders is an appropriate and adequate mechanism for service delivery? Will he issue guidance to that effect? Secondly, will he consider exploring how this model could be more widely extended, particularly to nightclubs at weekends, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, but perhaps elsewhere as well? I know that the legislation may require clarification. It is not my intention today to be prescriptive on how that might be done, but my understanding is that existing legislation is sufficient but that there needs to be clarity.

Drugs, legal or otherwise, cost lives and information helps to save lives. Why would we not provide life-saving information? I say it is time to test.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing the debate, which is extremely timely given that we are in festival season. We have spoken about this issue privately. We can all agree on at least one thing, which is that 11 deaths at festivals in the past two years is 11 too many. The tragic deaths of Georgia Jones and Tommy Cowan, both of whom died at the Mutiny festival, are the two most recent examples. Whether someone is a parent or not, it is impossible not to be deeply moved by the messages from Georgia Jones’s mother on this subject. I think we can all agree that everyone would expect us to do everything we can in our powers to do more to protect young people and reduce the risk of loss of life, because we all want the same thing: we want young people to enjoy these events, but to come home to their loved ones. We all share that desire.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that she is not calling today for a change in the law, because as we consider these issues in the real world we live in—rather, perhaps, than the world we would want to be in—it is important that we send clear messages. The message from the Government is very clear. Drugs are illegal where there is scientific and medical evidence that they are harmful to health and society. The possession of any amount of a controlled drug is a criminal offence and the supply of a controlled drug is an even more serious offence. No illegal drug-taking can be assumed to be safe, and there is no safe way to take them. Our approach must be clear: we must prevent illicit drug use in our communities and help dependent individuals to recover, while ensuring that our drug laws are enforced.

When it comes to festivals, we expect organisers, police and local authorities to reach an agreement on not only how the law will be enforced, but critically, how the public will be protected. That includes action to prevent illegal drugs getting into the site, the pursuit of suppliers—the hon. Lady was very clear about her desire to see suppliers disrupted—as well as taking such action that is necessary and effective in giving people, particularly young people, information and education about the risks.

I want to pick up on something that the Minister said. I am paraphrasing, but he effectively said, “Drugs are dangerous; that’s why they are illegal.” I have two questions: first, does he think that approach is working and stopping people taking drugs? Secondly, if dangerous drugs are illegal, why is alcohol not, when it is a more dangerous drug than cannabis or ecstasy?

I am simply stating the Government’s position, in terms of the existing law, and making it clear that there is no intention to change that. There is a wider debate to be had about drug strategy, but in the interests of time, I will focus on the issue at hand, which is what more we can do more to reduce the risk of harm to young people at festivals. I was talking about our collective requirement on organisers, police and other agencies to prepare strategies not only to enforce the law, but to protect the public, and within that, make sure that young people at such events have access to the right information and education about risks.

In that context—to speak directly about the issue under debate—the safety testing of products already clearly has a role. So-called “back of house” testing—whereby drugs that have been seized or surrendered by agencies are tested for their make-up and safety—is an established and valued tool for information about local drug markets and the risks inherent in events. So-called “front of house” testing, as pioneered by the Loop and advocated for by the hon. Lady and others, has been deployed with police co-operation first of all at Boomtown in Hampshire four years ago, at Kendal Calling in Cumbria, and at Love Saves the Day in Bristol with the full agreement of chief constable Andy Marsh, so it is possible.

However, as we feel our way forward on this, driven by our desire to do more to protect our young people from the risk in the real world, where they will have access to drugs and many will be tempted to experiment—this is the real world we operate in—we clearly do not want to be doing anything, as I am sure the hon. Lady agrees, that can be seen as endorsing the possession and consumption of illegal drugs. I do not think that is what she, The Loop or anyone else wants, and the Home Office will certainly not be signing up to anything that risks endorsing illegal drug use. In fact, the Loop is very clear that that is not what it is about.

We must also make it clear that the results of a test on a sample should never be interpreted as meaning that a drug is safe, because there are many other variables, as the hon. Lady knows, such as how the drug is used, what it is mixed with and the physical make-up of the individual taking it. We have to be honest about that.

I am sure that we all agree on the need for more evidence about the real impact when it comes to the desirable and honourable objective of reducing harm, because that is what motivates the Loop and the hon. Lady. We need better evidence about the causal link between this kind of testing and harm reduction, based on the experience of the UK and other countries where this tool has been introduced.

Having said that, I can confirm to the hon. Lady that the Home Office’s position, and that of Ministers, is that these are local operating decisions that we are not standing in the way of. The fact that chief constables from Cumbria, Avon and Somerset and Hampshire have stepped forward and said that they do want to co-operate sends a strong signal. I spoke earlier today to Chief Constable Andy Marsh from Avon and Somerset police, who is very clear that it is the right thing to do. He is also very comfortable about his legal position in doing so. Those are important signals.

Would the Minister be willing to make that position clear at the Association of Chief Police Officers conference?

I am coming to that, because the next thing I was going to say is that the relevant National Police Chiefs Council leads, Commander Simon Bray of the Metropolitan police and Deputy Chief Constable BJ Harrington of Essex police, have written to all chief constables and commissioners—I have the letter here—setting out the issues that they have to consider when assessing the value, benefits and risk of multi-agency drug testing at festivals. They make it clear that, as no drugs are returned to the user, there is no inadvertent supply offence. However, there are lots of issues that a police chief needs to think through in order to be comfortable. It is a local operating decision and we are not standing in the way, as is proven by the number of festivals deploying it.

However, in the light of the suggestion from the hon. Lady and others that there might be room for greater clarity in the guidance issued to the police on the matter, I have spoken to the Minister who leads on drugs policy, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), and she and I have agreed to speak to the police and explore whether the guidance could be further clarified. We have not received a direct request for greater clarity but, out of respect for the hon. Lady, and given the importance of the debate, I am happy to give that undertaking.

In the meantime, leaving aside the specific need to mitigate such risk at festivals, the Government have a very ambitious strategy for protecting people from dangerous drugs, and specifically for reducing the demand for drugs among young people by acting early to stop them taking them in the first place. A range of local initiatives are in place to improve safety and reduce drug-related harm, including social media messaging and communications from regional Public Health England centres. In addition, Public Health England continues to run “Frank”, the national drugs website and helpline for young people, which offers extensive information about drug risks and how to avoid them. “Frank” news articles in the festival season cover the risks in further detail.

The hon. Lady talked about psychoactive substances. We have already taken action to tackle the supply of so-called legal highs. Since the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force, more than 300 retailers across the United Kingdom have closed down or are no longer selling those substances; police have arrested suppliers; and action by the National Crime Agency has resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances being sold by UK-based websites.

Everyone is concerned about the dangers posed by the availability of drugs on social media. We want the UK to be the safest place in the world in which to go online, and anything that is illegal offline should be illegal online. We encourage people to report worrying material to the police, as well as using the in-app tools to report such images to the app providers themselves. Law enforcement agencies continue to work with internet providers to shut down UK-based websites that are found to be committing offences.

As for education and raising awareness among young people, we are expanding the Alcohol and Drugs Education and Prevention Information Service, which provides practical advice based on the best international evidence, including briefing sheets for teachers. Rise Above, which is available on the internet and is aimed at 11 to 16-year olds, provides material to help them to make positive choices for their health.

A huge amount is going on. We have an ambitious strategy to meet the challenges and work towards a safer, healthier Britain free from the harms of drugs. In the specific context of this debate, I hope that the hon. Lady will leave satisfied that the Government have listened, and that we will discuss the matter further with the police to establish whether clear guidance is needed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.