RMIT: New evidence of positive outcomes from festival drug checking

A new study into the efficacy of drug checking services at festivals has been published in the UK by an RMIT visiting fellow.

The study is the first ever survey to follow up on people who have used a drug checking service at music festivals.

More than 90% of participants who completed a follow-up survey to a drug checking service said the intervention influenced their subsequent behaviour, the University of Liverpool research reveals.

Researchers of the peer-reviewed paper found of those whose substance was not as expected, more than half reported handing over the substance for destruction or discarding any that remained.

For participants whose substance was as expected, more than one-third reported intending to, and recollected having taken, a smaller dose following engaging with the drug checking service when asked onsite, and in the follow-up questionnaire (38% and 42% respectively).

Overall, of those who were followed up three months after using the service, 92% reported the advice they received made a difference to their drug taking behaviour.

The drug-checking service operated at three outdoor camping festivals in the UK – two had a largely young adult audience and the third was more family-orientated.

Substances of concern were voluntarily submitted by the public for chemical analysis, with results provided directly to participants to increase their knowledge of the substances they had taken or were planning to take.

The University of Liverpool’s Professor Fiona Measham, corresponding author of the paper and RMIT visiting fellow, said the study shed light on the decision-making process for drug users.

“We can see that, by and large, people are considerate and careful. It really challenges some of the biggest stereotypes about drug users and young adults,” she said.

“Whilst relatively small, this follow-up study demonstrates the potential value of post-intervention surveys in examining outcomes that would not otherwise be identified on-site.”

Two men look at a laptop computer at a drug checking booth. The Loop drug checking staff. Photo: Steve Rolles
It comes as the Victorian coroner last month recommended we adopt drug checking services to help prevent drug deaths.

RMIT University drug policy expert Dr Monica Barratt, who made recommendations to the coronial inquest, said this new study contributes to the growing evidence base for drug checking.

“One of the criticisms of the existing evidence on drug checking is that much of it relies on self-report of intended actions,” she said.

“But this paper is the first to follow up service users and demonstrates a strong concordance between intended and actual reported actions.

Barratt said the evidence base could still be strengthened by higher follow-up rates, more direct measurement of harms rather than just behaviours associated with harms, and comparison with control groups.

“However, such research designs would require better data collection of harms on-site, increased funding and fuller legal amnesty,” she said.

Measham is co-founder and co-director of The Loop, the non-profit organisation that delivered the drug checking service.

‘Intentions, Actions and Outcomes: A follow up survey on harm reduction practices after using an English festival drug checking service’, with Dr Gavin Turnbull, is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy (DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103270).