Does Free Drug Testing Increase Safety at Music Festivals?

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It’s not uncommon to hear that people frequently use drugs at music festivals. Sometimes, due to contaminants unknown to those consuming these substances, complications with mental or physical health arise.

Law enforcement and on-site medical teams usually support the concept of drug testing services as a measure of harm reduction. Unfortunately, festival promoters resist acknowledging drug use at their events for fear of losing lucrative contracts and locations.

What is harm reduction, and why does it matter? Does the availability of drug testing at music festivals make these events any safer? Let’s dive in.

What is harm reduction and why does it matter?

The term ‘harm reduction’ refers to practices and policies that focus on minimizing the adverse consequences related to personal or recreational use of psychoactive substances, particularly in environments where it may be unsafe and when the drugs themselves have been obtained illicitly. Harm reduction philosophy acknowledges the reality that some people are going to use drugs. Instead of pushing abstinence, harm reduction promotes reducing the social and physical harm of the people who choose to use drugs.

Instead of focusing on the prevention of or punishment for drug use, which thus far has not been an effective approach and does not have any impact on drug-related health emergencies or deaths, harm reduction policies focus on established principles such as these:

Respecting rights

All people, even those who do not heed the laws and choose to take drugs illegally at music festivals, deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Everyone deserves access to services that help them make informed decisions about their health and well-being. No one deserves to be harassed or degraded for any reason, particularly the decision to use psychoactive drugs in a manner that is potentially unsafe for themselves or others.

Heeding evidence

Harm reduction practices are not arbitrary. Actions that are taken within communities to reduce harm have demonstrated an increased likelihood of safety, effectiveness, and practicality, in addition to being cost-effective to implement.

Social justice and collaboration

Harm reduction policies make anti-discriminatory practices the utmost priority and seek to guarantee everyone the same health services if needed. Additionally, harm reduction organizations work collaboratively with members of various socioeconomic and community groups with personal ties to how potentially dangerous drug use affects them.

No judgement or stigma

Everyone should be treated with respect and without judgment, regardless of the choices they make. The decision to use or refrain from using substances (as well as the amount used) is immensely personal and comes with different considerations depending on the individual. Harm reduction organizations avoid using value-assignment language, such as words that imply a person or drug is “good” or “bad.” Similarly, perpetuating stigma only serves to hinder the efforts of making healthcare and social services accessible to anyone who needs or wants them.

How do drugs impact safety at music festivals?

Substance adulteration can have serious physical and mental health implications, depending on the individual and the contaminants. Psychoactive drugs can affect a person physically, in ways like increasing body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. In crowded environments with high temperatures or poor ventilation, people can become dehydrated, overheated, or experience other physical complications related to the combination of a dangerous contaminant and setting. Mental health issues like anxiety and negative hallucinations can also occur.

One issue is that groups of people who know each other often partake in the same substances at the same time at festivals, without designating a sober caretaker within the group. If issues should arise, it’s possible that other members of the group could be unaware or ill-equipped to handle the situation properly.

If a substance causes a health emergency due to undetected contaminants, it is an unfortunate reality that many festival-goers avoid finding help due to paranoia regarding the legal ramifications of drug use. Many people are not aware of Good Samaritan Laws that protect them or people within their group from prosecution when they seek emergency health services related to low-level drug offenses that include the use of psychedelics.

What does free drug testing at music festivals entail?

Free, voluntary, on-site drug testing offers those who have purchased drugs illegally either outside or inside of the festival the opportunity to discover the true contents of the substance in question. While critics argue that free and voluntary drug testing essentially grants permission to festival-goers to use illicit substances, this is not the case.

Free drug testing services are an acceptance of the reality: regardless of potential consequences from law enforcement or the general awareness of risk, people are going to continue to use psychoactive substances at music festivals. Harm reduction advocates simply ask: what can be done to increase the safety of those who will be using drugs and the people around them?

Harm reduction organizations such as The Loop do more than provide free drug testing to anyone who wants it. Testing services are offered in conjunction with professional counseling and information regarding the risks of recreational drug use. Those who accept services are told and sign a waiver acknowledging that the only way to ensure complete safety in regards to illegal drugs used at festivals is to take none at all.

How does drug testing improve safety at music festivals?

When implemented properly, drug testing services at music festivals have demonstrated efficacy in reducing harm. For example, in the midst of an all-time high rate of drug-related health emergencies and deaths at music festivals worldwide in 2016, a Multi-Agency Safety Testing (MAST) pilot program for drug testing services was implemented at the Secret Garden Party in the United Kingdom. That year, there was only 1 hospital admission related to drugs, which was a 95% reduction from the prior year (which had 19).

Festival organizers may be hesitant to implement free and voluntary drug testing booths at their events. However, the benefits extend far beyond that moment, that festival, or that particular day. People who discover that their substances are not what they were told or that they contain dangerous adulterants often decide not to take those drugs. They may turn in additional doses and spread the word to others as a result. This not only prevents illness and death in a way that would not otherwise happen without voluntary drug testing opportunities, but many people who have engaged with these programs take to social media and alert others about their findings. Harm reduction measures at a music festival may perhaps save the lives of people around the country.

Closing thoughts

While free drug testing at music festivals does require organizers and promoters to acknowledge the reality of drug use at these events, the benefits far outweigh the continuity of harmful stigma. Seeing drug use as a reality and realizing that attempts to prevent it ultimately fail is the first step in making progressive efforts to keep festival-goers safe and allow them to make informed decisions by providing resources for them to do so.

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