Just Say Know - the organisations educating Britain’s clubbers and championing for safer party drug use.
“We were expecting it to be complete carnage,” Sorcha Ryan tells me.
Sorcha, 26, is Festival and Nightclub Harm Reduction Lead for BDP - the Bristol Drug Project. She runs The Drop, the BDP’s harm reduction wing, which offers information and support for people who use recreational and party drugs. When it was announced that England’s nightclubs and festivals would return on July 19th, 2021, she was concerned that people would overshoot their limits with drink and drugs.
“We were all a bit apprehensive, because we didn’t know what to expect, and we’ve spent the last year and a half getting ready for this day,” Sorcha reveals. Sorcha and The Drop have been offering in-person support throughout the pandemic, doing outreach work with students at the University of Bristol. However, their return to the events circuit came at Lakota’s Summer of Love Festival on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th July.
Speaking from a white walled office at The Drops HQ, Sorcha tells me how she became interested in harm reduction while volunteering with a Brighton based recovery organisation as part of a university module. Over the course of our Zoom call, we talk about all aspects of The Drop’s work, including their summer message of #StartLowTakeItSlow. But back to the festival. How did it go in the end? “The medical tents and welfare tents were not amazingly busy. Which is really, really positive”, Sorcha says. “We were quite pleasantly surprised.”
The presence of harm reduction organisations on the partying frontline is a recent development. In the past, conversations around drugs at nightclubs and festivals would have begun and ended, at Just Say No. Harm reduction on the other hand, while in no way advocating for the consumption of drugs, understands that people do use drugs, and focuses on how to best keep these people safe. Harm reduction charities want to ensure users are clued up - that they know how to safely take drugs, know what the effects of the drugs are going to be, and know what to do if something goes wrong. They also, if possible, want users to know what is in their drugs.
“We did our first front of house drug checking in 2016, which was at Secret Garden Party,” Adam Waugh tells me. Adam, 27, works for The Loop, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company that has been providing harm reduction services since 2013. The Loop are perhaps best known for the drug testing services they provide. They have attended numerous UK festivals since 2016, giving people the opportunity to test their drugs and find out what is in them.
As we chat over Zoom, Adam speaks thoughtfully. He chooses his language carefully to ensure that his words, and by extension The Loops message, do not get misinterpreted. “In terms of how it works, someone will come up to our service and they will drop off a substance of concern,” Adam explains.
The drugs are then sent to a laboratory, where they are tested. Around an hour later, the results are in, and the individual sits down for a chat. “When the person comes back, we won’t initially tell them the results, but what we do is sit down with them for about 15 or 20 minutes”, Adam says. “We’re not just giving them the result; we are talking to them about their drug use and trying to give them information that is relevant.”
The conversation around drug use and harm reduction is an important one because a lot of people use drugs. According to the Office for National Statistics, around one in five adults aged 16 to 24 years have used drugs within the last year.
In addition to this, a frankly large amount of people are still dying as a result of drugs. In 2020, deaths from drug poisoning reached record levels, while more people are dying from MDMA related deaths than ever before (82 deaths related to MDMA were recorded in 2020, whereas, between 1993 and 2017, 63 deaths was the highest yearly number recorded, the lowest being eight). Deaths related to cocaine are also steadily increasing year on year, with 777 deaths recorded in 2020.
But despite these worrying statistics, and a broader change in attitude with regards to drug use, UK drug legislation has remained much the same for over 50 years. The powers that be seem reluctant to make any large-scale alterations to drug policy, meaning that the War on Drugs slowly limps on.
“It’s almost a uniquely British phenomenon - we are so adverse and hostile to harm reduction that people are dying,” Steve Rolles tells me. Steve is senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a UK based charity which campaigns for fair, just, and effective drug policies.
“The government all too easily defaults back to these childish misunderstandings of what harm reduction is, that any harm reduction will somehow encourage drug use”, he says. “Even though there is no evidence for that, it still gets repeated. These are the same debates that were happening in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.”
But while central government drag their feet, progress is being made elsewhere. “The legislation might not have changed yet, but certainly there are reforms taking place in the UK at a local level”, Steve adds. “We are seeing things like drug testing at festivals, things like diversion programs, which means if you are caught in possession of drugs that you don’t get criminalised, you get diverted into a health intervention.”
While not every local authority or police forces is necessarily on board, the dominos are beginning to fall as more and more come around to the benefits of harm reduction. “Some councils have definitely taken a more conservative, small c conservative, approach, and view harm reduction measures as an admission of drug use, which they see as unacceptable”, Adam from The Loop admits.
“But conversely”, he adds hopefully, “we have done harm reduction initiatives at festivals and in different parts of the country, so there is scope to do it. Licensing measures (for bars and clubs) don’t prevent a more progressive approach to drug use or more progressive response to drug use.”
The challenge for these harm reduction organisations remains reaching as many people as possible. While both The Loop and The Drop have attended festivals this summer, with The Loop providing drug testing at Parklife in Manchester, there are still people taking party drugs who are unaware, or do not have access to, harm prevention support.
“If you are someone that uses drugs, the best way to keep yourself safe is spend some time reading about what you use,” Sorcha says. “Have a little read about stuff - read about how things interact, read about what a dose is, read about what’s happening in the market, and you can keep you and your friends safe, which is the most important thing.”