Summer weather and lack of other entertainment mean that young people are once again turning to outdoor partying on a large scale. Drug services are going to have to get creative about harm reduction, says Kevin Flemen.
In many post-apocalyptic films there’s an unbearably naff sequence where everyone has a party. It’s like The Matrix Reloaded ‘Zion dance party’ and usually involves everyone getting into tribal drumming and showing off their tattoos. It turns out that all these scriptwriters were, in fact, absolutely on the money. While the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere near over and social distancing is still in theory the order of the day, we’re at the Zion dance party stage of proceedings.
A few weeks ago I ran a ‘young people and drugs’ webinar and one of the things I flagged up was the likelihood as we exited lockdown of unlicensed events becoming a bigger issue. One participant highlighted that it was already happening in Bristol – that was a month ago. Since then the prediction has come to pass and there has been a massive upsurge in house parties, block parties, illegal raves and spontaneous open-air events. Some of these have made the national news, but the media attention has so far mostly been on litter and conflict with the police – the issue of drugs and safety has not yet been discussed so widely.
The upsurge in unlicensed music events should come as no surprise. Pubs are only now reopening on a restricted basis, nightclubs won’t be reopening for the foreseeable future and organised festivals have been cancelled. A cohort of people who have been furloughed, have lost work or are entering the summer unclear if they are going on to higher education are bored and craving social interaction and entertainment. And the weather’s hot. Partying outside is very clearly going to be the order of the day.
The drug harm reduction input at some organised events pre-lockdown has been very successful in making festivals and clubs much safer. Onsite drug testing, festival welfare, trained staff and harm reduction interventions were helping to raise awareness of, and reduce the risks from, high-strength pills and powders and pills containing unknown and possibly dangerous cuts, as well as providing help to those in distress. The best of these were collaborative exercises between promoters, police and welfare services.
This festival harm reduction doesn’t translocate to illegal events quite as easily, especially in the current climate. Clandestine events may be organised online with the final location announced at the last minute. Organisers are understandably wary of engaging with any statutory bodies – wariness that is likely to extend to drug services. Even where workers or volunteers could gain access, their own safety needs to be ensured in terms of COVID-19, personal safety and not getting caught up in any enforcement action. There had been concern that scarcity of precursor chemicals could mean a shortage of MDMA and the re-emergence of more dangerous compounds such as PMMA. Conversely there have also been reports of extremely high-potency pills, with peak doses in excess of 350mg being reported.
Without any doubt, as we exit lockdown, the explosion in unlicensed events will be the issue to contend with and drug services need to engage with this fast, creatively and at a grassroots level, if they are to provide much-needed input.
Given that unlicensed events are going to be one of the issues over the summer months, interventions are essential. And the ‘how to’ for working with unlicensed events means revisiting earlier harm reduction and being less reliant on permitted access and high-tech onsite testing.
It’s going to need to be more grassroots, including:
• production of clear accessible literature
• use of testing sites such as WEDINOS, Pill Reports and The Loop to promote awareness of contaminated pills, high-strength and other dangerous products
• safety advice about use of nitrous oxide
• engaging with promoters via social media so that they can make events safer – water onsite, access for emergency services, trained volunteers and engaging with drug services to provide outreach if possible
• peer education – as, more often than not, drug services won’t be on site it’s essential to equip those attending events with the resources and tools to manage critical incidents. Making sure attendees know how to spot signs of MDMA overdose and manage it is critical
• using What3Words to ensure that emergency services can locate people at outdoor events with pinpoint accuracy
• general harm reduction with a view to addressing COVID-19 spread including the sharing of snorting tubes, spliffs, drinks and balloons
• legal advice cards such as Release ‘Bust Cards’ so that people detained during enforcement activity know their rights and can access legal advice and personal safety advice