Music festivals may go hand in hand with drug culture, but we can be loud and clear on harm reduction, says Tracy Walker
In a muddy field, the distant thud of bass and excitement in the air, a small band of drug workers flies the flag for harm reduction (HR) on behalf of one of the largest festivals in England. Today’s festivals attract a much wider range of attendees than the subculture gatherings of yesteryear. Families are often well catered for along with a wide variety of music genres, with some attracting tens of thousands of people daily.
The synergy between music and drug culture is well documented and while the music and drugs may change and evolve, their intertwined legacy remains the same. Some campaign for drug-free festivals, which both the current law and policing are aiming to achieve. But with little to no clear resolution in sight, and drug-related deaths or serious drug-related harm still all too common, a different approach is needed. Some festivals are now leading a change of direction by pioneering a more proactive strategy to address preventable risks.
One of these festivals is BoomTown Fair, which last year commissioned Bristol Drugs Project (BDP) to provide HR advice and information, along with a safe space for attendees who need it. In the run-up to the event, they enlisted the advice and support of BDP in creating their drug awareness campaign, while onsite they promoted the BDP tent as a safe non-judgemental place for attendees to visit, relax in, and get advice or open up about drug-related concerns. The festival also provided volunteers to disperse HR information and direct people to the tent to further engage with the service.
BoomTown Fair provided amnesty boxes and HR information at the festival entrances. However, acknowledging that not all attendees onsite would follow the abstinence route of drug harm prevention, BDP festival HR workers Jim Bartlett, Ian Borland, Jacob Crook, Jasmine Lawrie, and Jane Neale issued free condoms, water and sniffing tubes to those who needed them, along with HR advice to support people in staying safe. The BDP team, with an interest in new patterns of drug use, engaged large numbers of festival-goers in more complex interventions around individual concerns or wider issues. Jasmine said that The Drugs Wheel: a new model for substance awareness (designed by Mark Adley/DrugWatch) proved a good aid for useful discussions about new psychoactive substances (NPS) and drug interactions.
The BDP tent contained a ‘chill-out’ space with beanbags, where those experiencing problems could recuperate. Workers facilitated this in a pragmatic and non-judgemental way, often preventing an escalation towards the need for other welfare or medical interventions.
With a banner announcing ‘free drugs’, qualified by the less eye-catching ‘advice and information’, acting as a magnet for interested passers-by, BDP took the opportunity to learn about their drug use and where they’d seek help if they needed it. Despite the many attractions at BoomTown, 420 people completed BDP’s short questionnaire about their drug use during the previous 12 months and where they sought information and support, as well as general demographic data.
This opportunistic sampling may not be representative of the festival population, but may be a useful indicator of the target, potentially at-risk, population for whom HR services may be relevant.
The sample was young adults, 72 per cent being under 25 and only 7 per cent over 30. Women were marginally under-represented at 47 per cent. The majority were in full-time work (60 per cent) or education (27 per cent).
The biggest surprise was the number of different drugs used in the previous 12 months, totalling 93 named substances. Respondents cited alcohol and polydrug use as common, with 83 per cent reporting alcohol use alongside other drugs. Many psychoactive substances were listed, including 2Cb, 2Ci, LSD, DMT, and AMT. Empathogens included MDMA powder and pills, while cocaine, amphetamine and skunk featured strongly. Men were significantly more likely to take psychedelics like DMT, LSD and mushrooms, as well as depressants, particularly diazepam.
Of the festival sample, 80 per cent might be broadly categorised as casual, infrequent or weekend drug users, showing the potential for risks of harm. The importance of this area of work is illustrated by Ian’s interaction with a young couple. They had only one previous experience of illicit drugs and the woman in particular experienced a bad reaction. Ian helped them explore whether they wanted to take the substance again, discuss testing strategies and dose, drug and alcohol interactions and other contributing factors like environment. Before this intervention they had intended taking a half-gram single dose each, putting themselves at considerable risk. We don’t know what their decision was, but we do know it was a more informed one. There were dozens of similar HR interventions.
The majority of respondents sourced drugs from friends, while a quarter bought from street dealers, with only 9 per cent purchasing via the internet.
Friends and the internet were equally popular sources of drug information, and friends were the major reported source of support. More respondents would consult drugs agencies for support than for information, but 70 per cent did not use agencies at all. A majority (56 per cent) said they had taken a substance without knowing what it was, with 11 per cent reporting doing this often. There was a significant gender bias of this risk towards men, which fits with more general trends in health-related research on gender and risk-taking behaviours. A significantly greater figure of 53 per cent of women never took unknown substances, compared to 37 per cent of men.
Although the majority said they had not deliberately taken an unknown substance, many expressed concern that they could do so unwittingly. This substantial risk could be addressed with drug checking, which happens already in some contexts in the UK and elsewhere. It may be that festivals would embrace drug-checking onsite, if legislation allowed.
The success of BDP’s HR presence at the festival in 2014 is demonstrated particularly well by workers being sought out by those concerned for friends who had used and become unwell – the result of positive earlier engagement with the service. Workers were able to assess and liaise with medical and welfare services using radios provided by the festival.
BoomTown Fair has re-commissioned BDP this year to build on the good work achieved at the 2014 event, with additional BDP volunteers to provide a greater capacity for HR and outreach. There will also be a structured programme of interactive HR workshops, information films and live speakers to engage with a wider audience at the festival and to inspire people to feel confident about talking openly about drug use and HR. BDP will also run the research questionnaire again, providing the opportunity to see any changes from 2014 and to demonstrate tangible results in engagement and the effectiveness of the service.
Tautology it may be, but it is worth spelling out that harm reduction reduces harm. We have the will, knowledge and ability to do more. A pragmatic governmental policy shift to enable delivery of more effective HR at festivals would mean a reduction in drug-related damage – so the song need not remain the same.
Tracy Walker is assessment engagement worker at BDP. Tom Martin can be found at www.tmoose.co.uk
Photography by Tom Martin