Death, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

By Rebecca Astill

When you think of festivals a few things might come to mind; excitement, anticipation, entertainment. However, there is a darker side to the coin. Perhaps the most shocking of headlines this festival season were those on 17-year-old Anya Buckley who died after drug complications at Leeds festival.

Anya Buckley died in the early hours of the 24th August in what Leeds festival bosses called ‘a tragedy’, following the consumption of a combination of drugs including extremely potent MDMA pills. Sadly, this festival drug related death is not at all isolated. Boomtown festival in Winchester was the setting of 4 deaths in 6 years between 2011 and 2016, culminating in the death of 18-year-old Livvy Christopher after taking Ketamine, Cocaine and MDMA. In 2018, Portsmouth’s Mutiny festival was cancelled on the final day following the deaths of 18-year-old Georgia Jones and 20-year-old Tommy Cowan, following fears of a high number of dangerously impure or high-strength drugs in circulation at the festival.

Common denominators in these heart-breaking young deaths appear to be the purity and strength of substances, dangerous combinations, and a lack of awareness about what to do when things go awry. Twitter user @liquidlip posted a controversial thread of information and advice on common festival drugs, including MDMA, Ketamine and 2CB, detailing effects, dosage recommendations and clear warnings about what NOT to mix. She was criticised for not suggesting the simple solution of just not taking drugs at all. With the amount of drugs still in circulation despite the long-term prohibition of illicit substances, this advice is clearly redundant. Obviously, in an ideal world in the eyes of the law, nobody would take drugs, and nobody would die drug related deaths. The reality is that this isn’t the case, and although I do not intend to promote drug use, it is undeniable that drug education needs to improve in order to prevent the unnecessary deaths of young people that we see every festival season. 

Stimulants are an umbrella term for many popular festival drugs, including Cocaine, Amphetamine (Speed), MDMA (Ecstasy) and Meth. Stimulants increase physical and mental responses and if taken unsafely, can lead to heart attacks, fitting, high blood pressure and psychosis. Ketamine is a powerful anaesthetic which can cause paralysis and can prove deadly when mixed with other drugs or alcohol. A big risk with Ketamine is taking too much and entering a ‘K-hole’, where the user can feel as if they are descending into an alternative state, become unable to communicate and lose control of their limbs.

There are a number of drug charities and websites which aim to combat the danger of drug naivety and educate users. Sites such as Roll Safe, Drugs and Me (founded by UCL students), and Talk to Frank all claim to offer  honest, judgement free information on safe drug use. Anyone can buy discrete drug purity tests from https://www.reagent-tests.uk/ to ensure that they haven’t been wrongly sold more toxic substances such as PMA – which can cause muscle spasms and sickness, or pentylone – a stimulant causing insomnia and anxiety. According to the Reagant website, ‘We neither condone nor condemn drug use, we are just here to help people stay safe. No more getting ripped off. No more ruined nights out. No more lost friends.’ Such a progressive attitude seems to be the answer to the prevailing drug problem at festivals every summer. 

Dance Safe and The Loop are two charities which conduct on-site drug testing at clubs and festivals throughout the US and the UK and disseminate harm reduction information. Results are then shared with emergency services and broadcast to the general public on social media when necessary.

The Loop runs a handful of campaigns including MAST, where festival-goers have access to confidential drug testing, and receive results with harm reduction packages. This advanced on-site drug testing debuted  at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling Festivals in 2016. The Loop also set up at Boomtown in 2017, following 4 deaths in 6 years since 2011. Since the introduction of The Loop’s onsite testing, the festival has had no more deaths despite its reputation for high drug use, demonstrating the success, although the charity’s services were not implemented this year. 

There is an understandable worry that the proliferation of drug testing will do more to promote drug use rather than deter it. Whether true or not, it undeniably reduces the number of drug-related deaths, which should be the foremost concern.

The bottom line is that, as with anything, a dictatorial prevention of drugs encourages underhanded methods of dealing and accessing, and increases the likelihood of impurities and high potencies. We need to begin an open conversation about the realities of drugs, like we already do with cigarettes and alcohol. Drugs will never be completely stamped out, but they can be made less deadly. Education and drug-testing pave the way towards safer consumption and prevention of avoidable deaths in the future.

How many more starry-eyed teenagers need to die for us to realise this?