Drug testing at festivals must expand before summer 2024, committee tells Home Office

 (Ben Birchall/PA Wire)
(Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

The Home Office has been urged to establish on-site drug testing at music festivals ahead of summer 2024, in a new report by the Home Affairs Committee.

A dedicated licensing scheme for drug checking at festivals should be established before the next summer festival season, including the power to grant licences to local authorities, the report on drugs published on Thursday said.

Allowing festivalgoers to test drugs for unsafe substances without fear of legal ramifactions helps to reduce overdosing or even deaths, event organisers argue.

This summer UK festival drug testing providers were told by the Home Office they have to apply for a Controlled Drugs Licence, which costs more than £3,000 and takes three months to process.

This is despite drug testing at festivals taking place since 2016 under the permission of local authorities and police, festival organisers say.

Some were notified by the Home Office without time to apply for the licence before the festival, with organisers worried about festivalgoer safety.

The United States, Australia and parts of Europe already have established drug checking services.

Festival organiser Sacha Lord is calling for the Home Office to introduce a group authority licence to relevant testing providers.

Drug-check providers The Loop were told just hours before Manchester’s Parklife festival in June that it needed a Home Office licence, specific to a named, permanent premises, to operate its usual on-site testing.

That despite the charity carrying out “back of house” testing at festivals–where drugs are voluntarily submitted for safety testing rather than seized–since 2016 under the permission of local councils and police, Mr Lord said.

He has taken legal action against the Government in response, and urged the Home Office to legalise pop-up testing at festivals and night-time events without the need for a permanent building.

He argued that without the provision of drug checking, the risk of drug-related harms or overdose at festivals could increase.

He told the Standard: “I think I speak for everyone across the industry when I thank the Home Affairs Committee for stepping up where the Home Office has failed on this issue.

“Before this summer, we collaborated with police and back-of-house testing firms to limit both the circulation of drugs and the harms of any dangerous substances that slipped through the net. The Home Office made the decision to stop all that – and then stuck its head in the sand.

“This report sets out a roadmap for the Home Office to fix its mistake and ensure lives aren’t put at risk by its U-turn. Events organisers and staff, as well as parents and punters, will be grateful to finally see some political leadership on this issue.”

The Home Office said there has been no change in its position and for the past 50 years, drug checking providers must have a licence from the Home Office to test controlled drugs, including at festivals.

But the Home Affairs Committee report said: “Back of house testing has been operating at festivals for a number of years through memorandums of understanding between local stakeholders, including the police and local authorities.”

In that time The Loop has delivered healthcare consultations to more than 10,000 people.

The committee said it would “monitor the situation as it develops” and acknowledged that support for drug checking services has increased in recent years among politicians.

The report said: “The primary aim of drug checking is to reduce drug-related harms. This is done through the provision of healthcare advice from medical professionals to the individuals who have submitted samples and/or via the dissemination of health warnings to the wider public— for example, to festival-goers.

“Countries, such as, the United States, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Canada, Austria and Australia have established drug checking services.”

In 2019, the Health and Social Care Committee recommended services be established at festivals and in night-time economies.

In 2021, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommended that a dedicated drug checking licensing scheme be established.

But the Combating Drugs Minister, Chris Philp MP, has said that “illicit drugs are harmful and there is no safe way to take them” and that drug checking services could therefore give a “false impression that illicit drugs may be safe” or could “condone drug use, which would be counterproductive to [the Government’s] aim of reducing illicit drug use”.

Research conducted by The Loop on its drug checking services found that drug checking reduced drug use and poly-drug use where the results on the content of the drug were not what the person expected.

The Loop CEO Katy Porter told the Standard: “The Loop drug checking service welcomes the report and the continued focus on the value of drug testing and drug checking in the UK.

“This provides an ongoing opportunity to ensure broader understanding of the implementation and impact of drug checking as a public health intervention, working with government departments, the police, health services, local communities and most importantly, directly engaging with people who use,or are considering using, drugs.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider this.

“Our 10-year drugs strategy set out ambitious plans, backed with a record £3 billion funding over three years to tackle the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action and building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people’s lives around and prevent crime.”