‘Drug Checking Is Just One Piece Of The Jigsaw’: Q’s With Professor of Criminology Fiona Measham

Fiona Measham
– Fiona Measham
Founded The Loop to help reduce the harm drugs can do to people at live music events and beyond

The UK Festival Awards will present this year’s Outstanding Contribution to Festivals Award to Professor Fiona Measham, Chair in Criminology at the University OF Liverpool, academic, author, yoga teacher, salsa dancer, qualified door supervisor, avid club-goer, and founder of The Loop, a non-profit NGO dedicated to reducing the harm caused by drug use at music events and beyond.
The UK Festival Awards jury selected Measham for “her lifelong commitment to equality and social justice causes. Amongst her achievements, she has served on the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt’s Drugs Science Committee, as well as the Lib Dems’ expert panel on cannabis regulation, and also acted as the key expert witness in the fight to keep Fabric nightclub open.”
Measham’s research interest in how the interface of dance music culture and criminal justice impacted on the health and wellbeing of young people ultimately led to her establishing the harm reduction service, The Loop. This was the first organisation to offer drug safety testing services in the UK – at the Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling festivals in 2016, then spreading to many more over the next four summers. 
Pollstar reached out to Measham to talk about the state of drug use at U.K. festivals, the stigma still attached to drugs and ways to deal with drugs in a responsible manner – from the users’, society’s and authority’s viewpoint. 
Pollstar: Are you happy with the amount of festivals that are offering drug testing facilities on site?
Fiona Measham
Courtesy of the UK Festival Awards
– Fiona Measham
Professor of Criminology at Durham University, book author and avid club-goer

Fiona Measham: Things are moving in the right direction in the U.K. but at glacial speed. Depending on how you define it, there’s about 700 U.K. music festivals each year which means that under 2% have ever had the Loop testing onsite. 

Obviously onsite testing facilities aren’t necessary at festivals with low levels of drug use – folk, jazz and opera, for example, have few drug-related casualties. 
However, I conduct annual surveys on drug and alcohol use at U.K. music festivals and we know from these that on average one in two festival-goers take illegal drugs at some point over the weekend with half of these taking larger quantities of drugs than they normally take. So festivals are potentially high risk environments for drug-related casualties.
Rather than always having onsite mobile labs conducting drug safety testing, known as ‘drug checking’ in North America, the Loop has also been piloting city centre testing, as happens in the Netherlands where they don’t have onsite festival testing. 
In this way drug checking is open to any drug using communities and festival-goers can be proactive about testing their stash before taking it onsite. So if there are any concerns, then alerts can be issued that will reach everyone before going onsite and hopefully before they have taken that substance.
So, in an ideal world we would like to combine the best of both worlds with city centre drug checking clinics and also onsite mobile labs.
How big of a problem is drug use in the U.K.?
We have the highest drug-related death rate on record, the highest in Europe and the festival death rate is increasing here in the U.K., so we all have to do more to address this. 
But that means that public health and festivals need to step up and contribute to harm reduction services including testing to support the health and safety of their customers. 
At the end of the day, though, drug checking will save money because it will reduce drug-related casualties, hospital admissions and the burden on health services on and offsite but you have to speculate to accumulate. 
Of course, some festivals and nightclubs do this more willingly than others. I am lucky enough to have partnered with some amazing events that are the most committed to harm reduction and don’t try to sweep the issue of drug use at their event under the carpet: they want to address the issue and they want to have cutting edge mobile labs on site as a part of that provision. 
Drug checking is just one piece of the jigsaw though, so ideally it needs to be situated alongside other harm reduction and medical services.
The Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, England, took place for the last time in 2017
PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
– The Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, England, took place for the last time in 2017
The beloved event had also offered visitors to test their drugs on site

Do you think the authorities are developing a better understanding of and for drug users? Have they gotten more open to the fact that not every drug user is a criminal?
There are so many different stakeholders in this debate – police, public health, local councils, festivals, nightclubs, and of course drug users themselves – that it is difficult to generalize. 
The international debate is clearly moving towards decriminalisation and legalisation not just of cannabis, but now also for magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and ecstasy (MDMA), including in North America, and there is some support for diversion away from the criminal justice system and into health and social support at regional level in the U.K. too. 
I sit on the Labour and Conservative party expert panels on drug policy reform so there is a recognition now at national level too in the U.K. that things can be done differently and that evidence-based reform is necessary. 
Probably one of the most heartening and unexpected alliances for the Loop when introducing drug checking to the UK in 2016 was the close and productive relationship we have had with U.K. police forces – they understood that drug checking was a pragmatic response to reduce drug-related harm.
We are clear that we don’t encourage or condone drug use and we are there to identify contaminants, adulterants and other substances of concern that could cause problems onsite.
James performing at Kendal Calling
Jody Hartley
– James performing at Kendal Calling
The festival was one of the first in the U.K. to have The Loop drug checking facilities on site

Do you think the public is developing such an understanding, are stigmas surround drug use and users being overcome in your view?
Public views of drug use have been changing over the last three decades or so. I was co-author of a book back in 1998 called Illegal Leisure that discussed the ‘normalisation’ of recreational drug use. 
The idea in that book was that society was undergoing a change in the U.K. from the 1990s onwards whereby, whether or not people take drugs themselves, most people are becoming more accepting of others’ drug use. 
Even if they haven’t experimented, most people now know friends, relatives or colleagues who have tried drugs, so they know that most people don’t get addicted, they usually carry on with the rest of their day to day lives without hugely adverse effects, often they stop when they get older, and they don’t spiral into the ‘junkie’ stereotype that some school drug prevention campaigns were based on. 
So, I think we are slowly chipping away at the stereotypes and relatedly the stigma surrounding drug use, as with other caricatures of marginalised groups in our society. 
If there are an estimated 7 million people going to U.K. festivals, that means that about 3.5 million of them are taking drugs and the other 3.5 million are camping next to them, brushing their teeth next to them and hanging out on the dance floor next to them, mostly without undue concern. 
What’s next for The Loop?
The Loop is a non profit NGO and almost entirely staffed by (amazing) volunteers, professional chemists, healthcare staff and academics, who have given up their free time to help set up and deliver the UK’s first and still only dedicated drug checking service. 
The Loop was very busy from the start so we are now pausing to catch our breath, with a period of review, restructuring and redevelopment, to increase capacity and grow with the demand for our service.
We also have huge amounts of data so are analysing, evaluating and writing up some of our results at the moment. Watch this space!