Pragmatic harm reduction, loss of revenue and keeping your licence are just some of the issues organisers face surrounding drugs. 

However, while a duty of care for festival goers is agreed on, the ‘how to’ aspect of this is far from universally accepted.

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) has weighed up these issues since its inception, and is in favour of the rollout of drug testing at festivals. “The AIF are encouraged to see the wider roll-out of front of house Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) at more independent festivals this year, including Bestival and Boardmasters,” chief executive Paul Reed told Access.

“Put simply, this is about pragmatic harm reduction and the duty of care to audiences. It certainly isn’t and never has been about legitimising drug use or suggesting that any drug use is ‘safe’. Of course, all festivals have a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and must work to the best of their ability to restrict them from entering their sites.

“However, if drugs can be smuggled into prisons they can and will be smuggled into festivals, whatever measures are put in place.

“With that in mind, making sure festival goers are better educated about the strength and make-up of these substances cannot be a bad thing. And, when you consider that everything from concrete to boric acid and malaria pills have been found through testing on-site at festivals, its role becomes imperative. Crucially, MAST also provides information and intelligence to all site medical and emergency services, alongside monitoring of local drug trends.”

The recent tragic events at the Portsmouth Mutiny festival have caused other festivals to view their positions taking into account moral, legal and insurance reasons, according to Peter Tilsed of Luker Rowe. “Future drug checking at festivals brings some interesting considerations due to the different attitudes. Bestival provided drug testing, whilst Reading and Leeds have the opposite approach saying that there will be none.

“Festivals are unlike many other day-to-day activities as it is known and accepted that the illegal activity of drug taking happens at the event. The legal doctrine of ‘volenti non fit injuria’ would apply, which states that if someone willingly places themselves in a position where harm might result, they are not able to bring a claim against another party. However, this would not take all responsibility away from organisers, although if a legal claim was successful, the compensation would probably be proportionally reduced due to this.

Luker Rowe’s Peter Tilsed

“Because organisers are aware of the drug taking, they would be expected to provide some basic facilities such as adequate first aid.  The Mutiny festival was unusual as the festival was cancelled once the dangerous drugs had been discovered.  Legally this was probably a sensible step as there is an increased duty on organisers when they become aware of an increased and unacceptable exposure to their customers.

Should the organisers be taken to court, it is likely that the Public Liability insurers would become involved, he adds.

“Whilst a standard Public Liability insurance policy would have no drugs exclusion, it is possible that this could be added to an insurance policy for a festival leaving the organiser with no insurance protection.

“There may also be other exclusions when the organiser is providing advice, such as where Bestival are offering a drug testing service. “Whilst this is being undertaken by an outside organisation who presumably have adequate insurance, any initial claim would come against the organiser.”

Luker Rowe’s message is therefore that there are many areas that need consideration before any decision is made and in respect of insurances, you need to check with your insurance provider as to what is, and most importantly what is not, covered under the festival insurance policy.

MADE Festival, a Birmingham festival, which took place on 28 July, operated a strict no drugs policy but introduced Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) as part of its new harm reduction strategy, allowing festival-goers to test drugs and make informed choices; the first time such safety testing has been used in the West Midlands. 

The decision was the result of a new partnership between The Loop, a non profit social enterprise specialising in drug safety testing, West Midlands Police, the Police and Crime Commissioner and Birmingham City Council.

Pete Jordan, MADE Festival’s Festival Director says: “As Birmingham’s leading music festival, the safety of our customers is our top priority. MADE Festival maintains its anti-drug stance, and we strongly urge people not to bring illegal substances to the event.”

Fiona Measham, director, The Loop

Fiona Measham, The Loop’s director adds: “The Loop will be delivering our drug safety testing service at over ten festivals across the UK this summer so we have a growing understanding of what is circulating in the illegal drug market, what is missold and what the risks might be. It is vitally important that we test in the Midlands and collect test data to inform not just festival-goers but also onsite and off site emergency services so everyone knows what is in circulation.”

The Loop’s MAST service is a form of drug safety testing whereby individual users submit samples for analysis and receive their results as part of a confidential, individually tailored harm reduction package, which facilitates a direct dialogue between the customer and The Loop’s specialist harm reduction team. 

“Safety testing can actually reduce the number of drugs that are used at an event. It is not uncommon for festival-goers to voluntarily dispose of their drugs after safety testing reveals what they are composed of. 

“If we are to cut crime and save lives there’s one thing we can all agree on; we need fresh ideas. Beyond our moral duty to protect life, the potential savings for public services and in turn the taxpayer, could be vast if just one serious overdose is prevented. Safety testing also helps the police to gather intelligence on new drugs in the region. That intelligence can then be used to warn people of the dangers around these substances, and to prosecute the dealers who are putting profit above young people’s lives,” she continues.

Meanwhile, the event industry is integrating strict door policies and considering rolling out drug testing across the board. 

Drug use is acknowledged as a reality at all venues, according to Vibration Group’s Simeon Aldred, as well as festivals and public events across the world. “All venues owners and festival owners are more than aware of the license risks brought from breaching regulations around drug or alcohol abuse. So, this is not just a moral priority for us, it’s very much a commercial one too. 

“At Printworks London we have Zero Tolerance to drugs-use in the venue. Our very robust door policy ensures that we’re compliant with the licence. Last year we had more than 300,000 guests through the door with no major safety or welfare issues. But this was more about our event operations. 

“The reality is that people pre-load drugs before they get to venues, or even have them concealed where security cannot check. In response, we provide world-class medical services onsite, safe areas, brilliant security training and amnesty opportunities. These are super simple mitigation methods that all work. Have we had people need the help of our medical team as a result of pre-loaded drug use? Yes, for sure! But with the right team and the correct training in place, we provide a safe space for these guests. It’s not just about having medics, it’s about having a team that understand the substances and are totally fluent with the systems. 

Aldred adds that outside of London, organisations such as The Loop are leading thinking around drug testing and use.

“This safe space is helping party goers make more educated choices around what they decide to use,” he concludes.

On the subject of event cancellation, Tilsed adds that insurance policies will normally provide cover against “unavoidable” cancellation, so it is therefore essential the policy includes a 24/7 helpline so that an agreed approach is taken. “There is the added benefit that many of these policies also include a crisis containment service which can provide assistance to the organiser on how they deal with all PR issues associated with the announcement of a cancellation,” he adds.

While an event cancellation is now very much a proven possibility when drug problems spiral out of control, there are signs that government is taking a slightly more progressive approach to the situation overall, according to Reed.

“The Home Office recently went on record to say that they will not stand in the way of testing. I don’t think it should be a licensing objective as this would have unintended consequences, but I do think it’s a service that should be available to all events who feel they have a need for it. 

“If testing takes place, it needs to happen in the correct way, with the right equipment and properly trained staff. The Loop certainly deliver this. We went to see it in operation on-site at Boomtown last year and it’s a sophisticated operation, done with FTIR spectroscopy linked to a computer database of all known legal and illegal substances.” 

The industry remains united in the cause of preventing drug harm, but after a particularly tragic year for drug deaths, it seems a consensus is emerging for a route forward. Thankfully, we’re better equipped than ever. 


Festival Safe: a one stop shop for consumer safety

A new initiative – Festival Safe – launched before the festival season, with Access All Areas as an official partner.

The brainchild of Jon Drape, director of several high-profile UK festivals including Parklife and Festival No.6 and group production director of Broadwick Live – Festival Safe is an initiative designed by festival organisers, industry professionals and the emergency services who feel strongly about the lack of vital information readily available for both first-time and regular festival goers to help prevent incidents both big and small from occurring at festivals.

Whether it’s as trivial as reminding festival goers to pack their wellies, to explaining key steps in managing a criminal incident, Festival Safe aims to fill the gap between festival goers and their lack of festival knowledge and to reduce harm. offers festival goers a place to find information on every aspect of going to festivals. Focus areas include what to expect before you go, camping, crime, drugs and alcohol, sexual health, mental health and more.

Access editor Tom Hall has helped with media coverage of the initiative. “I liked how the message wasn’t preachy, but provided simple, easily navigable access to information that a lot of people are afraid to ask, all in one place. As the festival sector expands into countless genres, these new audiences need sensible and pragmatic advice.”

Drape said: “I’ve worked and attended hundreds of different festivals and events over the years and I’ve literally heard it all from hypothermia in July to people not realising they have to bring their own tents.

“Eventually you see patterns emerge and festival goers making the same mistakes and getting in the same jams year in year out. It was at this point that I realised no-one had laid out a manifesto for how to have a great experience and not a festival fail. That’s ultimately what Festival Safe is – a one-stop shop for how to have the best possible time. It’s not a rule book to batter people around the head with, it’s a considered and knowing guide drawn from decades of collective experience, good and bad, to ensure everyone has an amazing time from first-timers to seasoned veterans.”