Making Sure Ecstasy Is Ecstasy: Volunteers Test Drugs At U.K. Music Fests

Aug 3, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 4:45 pm

In a muddy field in northern England's Lake District, more than 20,000 people are camping out at a four-day outdoor music festival called Kendal Calling. They jam along with their favorite bands. Some people wear outlandish costumes: There are superheroes, Indian chiefs and a naked guy wearing only transparent plastic wrap. There's dancing, drinking and occasionally, some illicit drug use.

It's a typical scene at summertime music festivals across Europe. But in England this summer, for the first time, revelers can have their illegal drugs tested before they take them. It's part of a new project to prevent overdoses.

"I've been doing festivals for three to four years now. I like my Ecstasy pills," says Rio Brown, 29, from Manchester, England. "If I want to chill out, I have my weed. If I want to party, I'll have some cocaine or a pill or whatever."

Brown just bought a bag of Ecstasy pills from a dealer who somehow smuggled them past the police and sniffer dogs at the festival gate. Ecstasy is the same psychoactive drug a teenager suffered a fatal overdose from at this same festival last year. That has Brown concerned.

So he and his friends take their baggie of drugs over to a festival tent labeled The Loop. It's a nonprofit that conducts forensic testing of drugs, and it's set up shop at U.K. music festivals for the first time this summer.

"[It's] just to make sure we're getting the right thing, really, to make sure it's not harmful," Brown explains. "We don't want to kill ourselves, you know what I mean?"

Brown breaks off a fragment of one of his Ecstasy pills and hands it to Chris Brady, who works full time as a drug counselor and educator for Britain's public National Health Service and volunteers on weekends with The Loop.

"We're very realistic that people do take drugs, and what we want is to keep people safe," Brady says. "We don't want any mothers getting a call at 4 in the morning, saying that their son or daughter is ill, or even worse."

In a tiny trailer behind the tent, volunteers conduct chemistry tests on pink and purple pills that look like children's vitamins. It takes only about 15 minutes. The volunteers are professional chemists, Ph.D. students and pharmaceutical researchers — all here on their own time.

"They give us one pill or a small scoop of powder, and they won't get that back," explains Fiona Measham, co-founder of The Loop. "Normally the substance is destroyed in the testing process. So there isn't really anything left in our possession."

That's how they get around drug possession laws. In the U.S., similar groups give out self-testing drug kits.

Measham is a professor of criminology at Durham University in northern England, and a drug policy adviser to the British government. She has worked for decades with police, as a forensic drug expert, testing drugs found on overdose victims, to help paramedics know how to treat them.

But then Measham had an idea: Why wait until after the drugs are taken, to find out what's in them?

She co-founded The Loop in 2013, and convinced police of the benefits of looking the other way, so that drug users can avoid being poisoned or suffering an overdose.

"One of the key things is to win the trust of people who are giving us illegal drugs. This isn't an undercover police sting. Genuinely, it's a health and welfare issue," Measham says. "The police have been very supportive of that. So they don't stand anywhere near the tent. We don't want them to scare off potential customers."

On this particular day, Measham has been testing for MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy and another popular drug called Molly.

"We had some Ecstasy tablets that were 20 to 25 mg of MDMA, right up to 250 mg of MDMA. So you've got a 10 times range," she explains. "If people have two of the lowest strength, they probably would barely feel the effects. If they had two of the highest strength, that could potentially kill them."

Among hundreds of samples tested at this festival, Measham and her staff also have found ground-up cement, anti-malaria medication and pesticides — all sold as party drugs.

Behind a curtain, a drug counselor sits down with Rio Brown to explain what his Ecstasy pills are really made of. It turns out he overpaid. His drugs contain traces of MDMA, but also quite a lot of cellulose and chalk — harmless fillers.

Brown decides to go ahead and take his pills. But The Loop says that about a quarter of people who use their service decide to dump their stash in the end.

The grounds at the Kendal Calling festival are dotted with drug amnesty bins — like municipal mailboxes, for dumping drugs.

Drug counselors here hope those bins and drug-testing tents could become a fixture at music events around the world — perhaps even part of the licensing requirements for festival organizers.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In England, for the first time, there are special tents at some music festivals this summer to test drugs. Concertgoers can learn what's in the drugs they're thinking about taking. Lauren Frayer has our report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Twenty-thousand people are camping out in this muddy field in England's Lake District for a four-day music festival called Kendal Calling. Some come in superhero costumes. There's a naked guy wearing transparent plastic wrap. I suspect some of these revelers are on something, and Rio Brown from Manchester wants to join them.

RIO BROWN: I've been doing festivals for about three, four years now. And I like my Ecstasy pills - anything really. If I want to chill out, I have my weed. If I want to party, I'll have some coke or a pill or whatever, you know what I mean?

FRAYER: He just bought a bag of Ecstasy pills from a dealer who somehow smuggled them past the police and sniffer dogs at the festival gate. Ecstasy is the same psychoactive drug a teenager suffered a fatal overdose from at this same festival last year. Rio now has the option of getting his drugs tested before he takes them.

BROWN: Just to make sure we're getting the right thing, really, so we're - just to make sure it's not harmful. We don't want to kill ourselves, you know what I mean?

FRAYER: He breaks off a fragment of one of his Ecstasy pills and hands it to Chris Brady, a volunteer with The Loop, a non-profit anti-drug group that set up its own tent at this festival.

CHRIS BRADY: We're very realistic that people do take drugs, and what we want to do is keep people safe. We don't want any mothers getting a call at 4 in the morning saying that their son or their daughter is ill or even worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come and see the den.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, the drugs den.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The little lab rats are working away.

FRAYER: In a tiny trailer, volunteers do chemistry tests on pink and purple pills that look like children's vitamins. It takes only about 15 minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And so I'm going to weigh it on here.

FRAYER: The woman behind all of this is Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology and a drug policy adviser to the British government. She convinced police of the benefits of looking the other way so that drug users can avoid being poisoned or suffering an overdose.

FIONA MEASHAM: They give us one pill or a small scoop of powder, and they won't get that back. Normally the substance is destroyed in the testing process, so there isn't really anything left in our possession.

FRAYER: That's how they get around drug possession laws. In the U.S., similar groups give out self-testing drug kits. Today Fiona has been testing for MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy and another popular drug called Molly.

MEASHAM: We had some Ecstasy tablets that were about 20, 25 milligrams of MDMA right up to 250 milligrams of MDMA. So you've got a ten times range. If people had two of the lowest strength, they probably would barely feel the effects. If they had two of the highest strength, that could potentially kill them.

FRAYER: Among hundreds of samples tested, she's also found ground-up cement, anti-malaria medication and pesticides sold as party drugs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...In no way facilitate, condone or condemn any drug usage.

FRAYER: Behind a curtain, a drug counselor sits with Rio Brown to explain what his Ecstasy pills really contain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, I've got your results for you. So it does contain a lot of what we call filler.

FRAYER: Turns out Rio overpaid for drugs diluted with cellulose and chalk, harmless fillers. He decides to go ahead and take his pills, but about a quarter of people who use this service decide to dump their stash in the end. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Penrith, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.