UK Drug Checking Study Shows How Coachella Should Do Harm Reduction

Are you sure that's MDMA you're taking?

The lineup for Coachella 2019 was announced this past week, boasting a diverse range of artists, from Ariana Grande to Zedd. But what about drugs? Sure, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, is a great place to see all the year’s most popular musicians over the course of two weekends, but as with any large music festival, many attendees are just as excited about taking some drugs while they bop to their favorite bands. Unfortunately, mislabeled and counterfeit drugs abound at music festivals, so there’s little guarantee that whatever fans are buying is actually what the sketchy guy in the parking lot tells them it is. But researchers in the United Kingdom are embarking on a radical effort to make festivals safer for people who want to take drugs. Maybe the organizers of Coachella could take some notes.

In a paper published December 9 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, Fiona Measham, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of Durham in the UK, outlined the results of an ambitious drug testing program. During a 4-day music festival in the UK in 2016, chemists set up a temporary lab to test whatever substances festival attendees were unsure about. When festival-goers received their results, they had the option to dispose of the substances safely — no questions asked.

Among the findings, Measham reported that 19.5 percent of substances tested — that’s nearly one in five — at the festival turned out not to be what the festival-goer had been told it was. For users who bought their drugs at the festival (rather than bringing them from home), the odds were much higher that their drugs were missold.

“Substances acquired within the festival grounds were more than twice as likely to be at variance with what they were sold as compared with those bought offsite,” Measham wrote — 27 percent versus 12 percent.

How sure are you that the guy in a Cookie Monster hat sold you real LSD?

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In many cases, missold drugs turned out to be cheaper drugs sold as more expensive drugs — ketamine sold as cocaine, for example — and common stimulants sold as MDMA.

“Other missold samples contained inactive but relatively harmless ingredients such as six samples of plaster of paris missold as ecstasy pills and four samples of brown sugar missold as MDMA crystal,” Measham reported. And in many cases, these individuals used the information they received from the drug checking service to make safer choices about their drug consumption.

“One in five service users utilized the disposal service for further substances of concern in their possession and another one in six moderated their consumption,” Measham reported.

During the event, chemists tested 247 different samples for attendees — without the fear of getting in trouble with law enforcement. As the first effort of its kind in the UK, Measham wrote that this direct-to-the-public drug checking service was meant to assess how feasible, practical, and effective such a service could be in a festival environment. In the end, Measham reported, the project was a success — especially in terms of reaching young and first-time drug users, who are not as likely to have a grasp on the potential danger of ingesting unknown substances, and therefore are not as likely to get their drugs tested.

She also reported that the experiment was a success in terms of cooperation with law enforcement and event organizers.

Unfortunately, the so-called “crack house law” in the United States scares many event organizers away from inviting drug checking services onto their grounds. The law makes it a felony to knowingly maintain a facility in which people are using or selling drugs, so if festival organizers invite drug-checking chemists onto the premises, the logic says that the event organizers are admitting that they know drugs are being used at their event. Therefore, drug checking teams like the Bunk Police have resorted to guerrilla practices in recent years, smuggling testing kits into Coachella and other large festivals.

And while playing ignorant may keep festival organizers legally protected, it fails to account for the obvious reality that people take a lot of drugs at music festivals — sometimes with dire consequences. In 2014, for example, a young woman died of a suspected overdose at Coachella. But instead of engaging with cutting-edge harm reduction efforts and dealing with the fact that people may engage in risky behavior at music festivals, many organizers prefer to keep themselves legally protected.

But hey, at least you can see Weezer play while you’re on ecstasy that turned out to be bath salts.

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