Promoted by DJ’s, musicians and entertainers and seen all around the country at nightclubs, festivals and events, The Loop has been promoting the ‘safe sesh’ since 2013. The work they do is essential in ensuring recreational drug users are safe, by creating an open and non-judgemental space from in-house welfare service delivery to anonymous forensic drug testing for public safety so, in the words of Beans On Toast, you can ‘find out whether your drugs are concrete or cocaine.’
We spoke with them about harm reduction, their concerns for drug use in 2021 and for advice on how to party safely.
For those who aren’t aware of The Loop can you tell us more about the organisation and the work you do?
The Loop is a not for profit non-governmental organisation that provides drug checking and harm reduction at festivals and in city centres.
The Loop provided the first publicly available drug checking service at Secret Garden Party in 2016. Since then we have tested thousands of drugs (substances of concern) and delivered health interventions at festivals and city centres across the country.
People are able to surrender their drugs for laboratory analysis and receive their results as part of a confidential, individually tailored healthcare consultation delivered by an experienced healthcare practitioner.
You also give out health consultations as well as drug testing, how important would you say these open conversations about recreational drugs use are?
Our healthcare consultations are an absolutely essential part of our work. There are several reasons for this:
Firstly, if the result of drug checking is given without any context, then it’s much easier for the service user to misunderstand the result. For example, a lab result that indicates a pill has 300mg of MDMA in it is pretty meaningless unless you know that that amounts to around 3x a common adult dose.
Secondly, the risks associated with drugs are not just determined by the drug itself. Risks can be exacerbated by polydrug use, the environment a drug is taken in, underlying medical conditions, use of prescription or over the counter medications, amongst many other things. Our healthcare consultations involve us looking at the wider picture of how that person takes drugs and we try to help them understand the risks they face, and in particular, what harm reduction strategies are commonly used to reduce those risks.
Thirdly, our healthcare consultations allow us to cover much more than just the drug checking result itself. We often end up discussing a variety of drugs with service users and can help signpost them to support for other issues, such as mental health problems or more complex drug problems that require ongoing support. 95% of people who use The Loop have never had a conversation with a health professional about drugs, so many have lots of questions!
We’re getting closer to festivals, clubs and events reopening. Obviously, people are going to be making up for lost time! Any advice on how we can get back to partying safely?
There’s some concern amongst people involved in the drugs harm reduction field that when nightclubs and festivals reopen people will be at higher risk of coming to drug-related harm.
Part of this is that, as you say, people might try and “make up for lost time” and consume alcohol or drugs to excess. However, there’s more to it than just that. Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns changed people’s drug consumption patterns, with our survey on drug use during lockdown finding ecstasy use fell 75% and cocaine use fell 50%. This may mean that people’s tolerance has reduced or they are less familiar with the effects of drugs, so they may be more likely to misjudge their dose. We know that people’s mental health has been affected a lot by Covid-19 & the lockdowns. If people are struggling with their mental health then it may make their reaction to drugs more unpredictable.
In terms of advice for people who are returning to festivals and clubs on July the 19th, the starting point is that all drug use carries risk, and the only way to eliminate this risk is not to take drugs. However, if you do decide to take drugs, we’re really trying to get people to think about moderation and taking things slowly this summer. We are thus encouraging people to:
What we mean by this, is that if someone is going to take drugs, it’s much better they start with smaller amounts, see how they’re feeling after a while, and only then consider taking more. The majority of the harm associated with drugs comes from people taking too much and accidentally poisoning themselves.
People should also be aware of the risks associated with mixing drugs and that some drug combinations, in particular, pose a particular risk of harm. We would also encourage people to be mindful of how they’re feeling, both physically and mentally, before deciding to party, and be aware that taking drugs in a crowded nightclub or festival may be quite a different experience from what they’ve been used to over the last year or so.
Each year we see new substances enter the supply chain, is there anything are you concerned about going into summer 2021?
This is quite a hard question to answer, and the answer at this stage is a little bit speculative. This is because one of the consequences of Covid-19 has been that drug checking organisations across Europe haven’t gathered as much data as they usually would. This means that all of us are having to second guess a little bit about what will happen in the UK this summer.
Know Your Stuff, a New Zealand based drug checking organisation have found around 50% of expected MDMA samples tested this summer have actually contained eutylone. This is up from 2% of test results last summer. Eutylone can feel similar to MDMA initially, but it lasts longer and if someone has too much, they may have severe insomnia which can cause psychosis. The big caveat to this is that New Zealand often has different drugs to the United Kingdom, so we don’t have reason to suspect that there will be as much eutylone in circulation in the UK. However, we know that the British police have seized shipments of eutylone, and WEDINOS, a postal drug testing service in Wales, have had a number of samples of eutylone submitted. So it’s something to keep an eye on.
More generally though, we are somewhat stepping into the unknown. Brexit may have had an effect on some drug supply chains, disrupting how people import drugs into the UK. Covid-19 may have impacted drug supply chains too, with disruption to intentional travel reducing the opportunities to move drugs across countries.
This is one of the reasons drug checking is so important. When The Loop are testing we have a much better idea of what is currently in circulation in the UK, and this information is passed on to people who take drugs as well as medics and welfare organisations who are then better placed to help people.
Recent analysis has shown an increase in synthetic cannabinoids being sold as cannabis. How can cannabis users protect themselves?
This is a hard question! One of the difficulties with synthetic cannabinoids is that some are extremely strong and thus potent in very small doses. It may be impossible to tell whether or not a synthetic cannabinoid has been added to cannabis product purely by appearance. Synthetic cannabinoids can be missold as drugs other than just cannabis. In 2018, The Loop tested an extremely high dose of a synthetic cannabinoid, 5F-MDMB-PICA, which had been sold to someone as 2C-B.
One thing which I think is clear is that things dubbed “THC” vape or e-liquid cartridges have a disproportionately high risk of containing a synthetic cannabinoid. WEDINOS, for example, found in February 2021 that over 50% of the “THC” e-liquids they tested actually contained synthetic cannabinoids.
If someone has a cannabis product, and for some reason, it doesn’t feel right, or the effects are too strong, then they should stop taking it immediately. They could then send a sample of it to WEDINOS or their local drug checking service to find out what it contains and dispose of it safely and not continue to take it. Some people report that synthetic cannabinoids feel disproportionately strong or cause hallucinations beyond what one would expect from cannabis. If someone has any doubts about their product, they should not consume it.
Finally, if someone has been taking a cannabis product frequently or in high doses for a sustained period of time, and develops concern that it may be a synthetic cannabinoid, they should seek help before stopping. While cannabis withdrawals can be unpleasant, withdrawals from synthetic cannabinoids can be dangerous. If you are concerned you have accidentally become dependent on a synthetic cannabinoid, you may want to seek help from your local drug and alcohol service.
Any last words for anyone thinking about taking any drugs this summer?
Yeah, I’ll keep it brief:
2) Your tolerance may be lower, take it slower.
3) Consider your mental health before partying.
4) Be aware that taking drugs in nightclubs and festivals will be different to what you’re used to.
5) Try and get your drugs tested before taking them.
You can view our previous drug alerts here
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