Home Office blocking on-site drug testing risks young lives at events like Leeds Festival: Jayne Dowle

As the mother of a 17-year-old daughter off to Leeds Festival at Braham Park in August, I’ll do all I can to keep her safe.

However, I’m a realistic parent, which is more than can be said for Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who I understand has two young children of her own.

Ms Braverman’s department is clamping down on on-site drug testing at festivals this summer, leading to fears that potentially lethal batches of drugs such as ketamine or MDMA could go un-noticed – until someone’s child dies.

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There is no point pretending that recreational drug use doesn’t happen. My kids have been brought up knowing my views. I’ve known far too many middle-aged drugs casualties, who started “soft” on cannabis as teenagers and ended up dying by overdose or left with serious long-term mental health conditions. Therefore, I’m unfashionably zero tolerant.

Fans during the Leeds Festival 2022 at Bramham Park in Leeds. Picture: Danny LawsonFans during the Leeds Festival 2022 at Bramham Park in Leeds. Picture: Danny Lawson
Fans during the Leeds Festival 2022 at Bramham Park in Leeds. Picture: Danny Lawson

But I do see the bigger picture. And I don’t pretend that if we ignore drugs they will somehow go away.

It’s always an anxious experience, letting your child roam in the world of festivals and gigs, where they may be tempted to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

At the very least, I would hope that if my daughter was ever worried about herself or her friends, there would be someone on hand to help.

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Lizzie came back safe from Leeds last year but at least 14 families, between 2017 and 2021, never saw their son, daughter, brother or sister again, because this is the number – with some experts estimating it as higher – of young people who died through misadventure with drugs at a music festival.

You would think the Government would be doing all in its power to prevent more young people’s names being added to this grim total.

However, in its wisdom, the Home Office has decided to make on-site drug testing at festivals almost impossible, according to organisers of Manchester festival Parklife, who say they were told that they would be unable to check for dangerous drugs without a special licence.

This licence apparently takes three months to arrange, at a significant cost, making on-site drug testing practically impossible this summer, they argue.

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For some years now, festival organisers have tested drugs, confiscated by the police or security, in a cabin on site. If these show that a particular type or batch of drug is a serious threat to health, push notifications are quickly sent to festival-goers’ mobile phones, warning it’s dangerous and should not be taken.

There is evidence that the presence of such on-site testing does keep people safe. The Loop, a volunteer-run drug testing facility, working with the support of festival management, local authorities and police officers, says festivals see a 10 to 25 per cent reduction in drug-related harm when they are operating. They also offer advice and support to youngsters worried about drugs at festivals.

And so, an unlikely cross-party group of MPs, led by DJ Fatboy Slim, 59, and 65-year-old singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, have penned an open letter to Ms Braverman, begging her to reconsider the hard-line decision on what they are calling a life-saving service.

In response, the Home Office has issued a statement shutting down debate and passing the buck to police forces: “There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities. Any policing arrangements around festivals are an operational matter for chief constables.”

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What makes the whole thing even more puzzling and provoking is that in 2021, an influential parliamentary committee warned it was concerned there would be a surge in youth drug deaths at festivals without government-backed action.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee called on the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to introduce widespread drug-checking services after it reviewed the evidence and heard “compelling” arguments it saved lives.

If Ms Braverman won’t listen to them, she really should listen to fellow parents. The family of 17-year-old Anya Buckley who died at the Leeds Festival in 2019 after taking illegal drugs spoke publicly about the need for organisers to be “realistic and practical” about substance use in order to save lives.

“We are tormented by the fact that Anya’s death was avoidable,” her aunt Anna Short told reporters after the inquest. The words “inquest”, “festival” and “17-year-old” send a chill through any parent’s heart. The Government should do its very best to ensure that this summer, we never see them in the same sentence.