The importance of harm reduction: How to look after yourself and your friends when it comes to drugs
Harm Reduction

For a lot of people in their twenties, Friday nights will be spent tearing up the dance floor in their dingy local club and summers will be spent in a (muddy) field, overpriced pint in hand, enjoying a festival main stage. But, something else that is synonymous with the clubbing and festival scene is drugs.

Various pills and powders are flung around left right and centre and it’s all well and good telling people not to take them, but in reality, how often are people listening? What we should also be doing is teaching people who are going to ignore deterrents how to look after themselves and their friends, because the statistics are worrying. 

How big is the problem?

The ONS revealed that in 2022, the number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose for the 11th consecutive year. Over 4,900 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered, the highest figure since records began in 1993. Whilst the highest number of reported deaths were amongst men from Generation X, today’s Gen Z party animals are at just as much of a risk. 

For the year ending March 2023, people aged 16-24 had the highest reported drug use out of any other age group. Although drug use for the population as a whole has slightly decreased over the last 10 years, Chris Brady from The Loop, a nationwide drug harm reduction not-for-profit organisation, believes that more needs to be done to combat the alarming rise in drug-related fatalities.

“The decrease in usage has not been so much that it’s something we should be bragging about,” the 47-year-old from Oldham says. “Not when the deaths are as high as they are. I don’t think the government are doing very much. They’re telling people they are stupid for taking drugs. What we need to do is keep people safe.”

Enter: The Loop

The Loop was established in 2013 as a drug education and welfare stall at Parklife Festival. Two years later, with support  from the Home Office, the organisation began a drug testing service at The Warehouse Project (TWP) in Manchester, alongside their support services for people who were having unexpected experiences after taking drugs. 

A bad, potentially fatal, reaction to a drug could be a result of a number of reasons, all unbeknown to the person taking them. A drug could be stronger than it’s labelled as being or could be laced with a secondary more potent substance. 

“What that testing did was give us and the medics actual information about what was about, what was strong and if something was what it was supposed to be, so we knew how to help,” Chris says. “We know from what we’ve tested that you’re 50% more likely to get ripped off buying on site than you are if you buy off somebody you know earlier.”

Linnell Publication’s Peanut Pete (image Michael Linnell | Linnell Publications)

Following a couple of years running pop up drug testing services at Festivals across the country, such as Kendal Calling and Boomtown, in 2018 The Loop established a permanent drug testing site in Bristol, the first of its kind in the country. Once a month, anyone can go to get their drugs tested without any judgement.   

“By doing a static testing service like we’re doing in Bristol, it doesn’t matter what festival or nightclub you’re going to, we’re there so you can come and get your drugs tested in advance,” says Chris. “Even if you know someone you’re buying off, they’re buying off someone else and they’re buying off someone else in most cases and there’s no quality control in an illegal market. 

“You don’t know what you’re getting in a lot of cases. If people think they’re buying Xanax, for example, we know some really powerful opioids are being found in that supply at the moment and people are dying. 

“At least a service like The Loop can get in the middle of that by testing samples.”

Harm reduction: A brief history…

The Loop’s ethos is centred around harm reduction, which is a method of helping people minimise the risks should they choose to engage in dangerous behaviour. But as Chris explains, harm reduction is by no means a new concept, but for a while, was forgotten. 

“Harm reduction was the focus during the very first government drug strategy back in the 1990’s,” he says. “It actually started when we first became aware of HIV in the 1980s.

“The first ever article to mention harm reduction was a Drug Link article called ‘High Time for Harm Reduction’, by Russell Newcombe. It looked at the problem, took a stand and rather than telling young people who were taking drugs ‘you’re evil, you’re naughty, you’re a criminal’, they said, ‘you’re at risk’.”

Harm reduction saw the implementation of needle exchanges and the rise of the likes of Michael Linnell, who’s magazines promoted a great deal of safe practices in the 90s and early 2000s that were effective in educating people on staying safe. 

“If you look at Linnell’s ‘Smack in the Eye’ and ‘Peanut Pete’, these magazines were made for people using drugs and would show how to get rid of a needle safely and what warning signs to look out for.

A page from Linnell Publication’s Smack in the Eye (image Michael Linnell | Linnell Publications)

“But, as austerity happened in 2007, the drugs strategy changed. It became a more abstinence-based recovery strategy. They made harm reduction feel second best and, whilst there is some evidence to show usage dropped, the deaths are still there. Things have been moving back in the right direction back towards harm reduction since the Dame Carol Black report in 2019.”

Of the recommendations outlined in Dame Carol Black’s report, one specifically called for local authorities to commission a full range of ‘evidence-based harm reduction and treatment services’ in a bid to change the narrative of drug misuse and related deaths, which Chris welcomes.

“I can speak from experience. When I was 20-25, I responded to decent harm reduction advice,” he says. “When it comes to being told what to do when it comes to drugs, you want honesty. You want to be treated with a bit of respect. 

“I think for the young people today, it’s the same as it was when I was younger, in terms of wanting honest information, impartial and non judgmental support and treating people with a bit of respect. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

How can you look after yourself when drugs are added to the equation? 

Whilst The Loop are resuming their festival testing for the first time post-pandemic this summer, not everyone who could benefit from harm reduction treatment will be attending and only a select few will be in close vicinity of Bristol. But, there are measures you can take to make sure that you and your friends are staying safe.

“Know what you’re taking, whenever possible,” advises Chris. “Plan ahead. If you’re going to go out, buy drugs, a couple of weeks before you could send them off to WEDINOS to get tested they’ll put it on their website and say what’s in it. Know who you’re going out with and where you’re going. With many substances, especially psychedelics, things can spiral quite quickly and you can end up quite distressed, so have someone who can get you out of that who is sober.

“If there’s this sort of shaming culture around drugs, there’s always going to be a place for charities like The Loop. There’s always gonna be a need for judgement-free, easily accessible support because of the government response to it and we’ll see what could happen with a Starmer government

“We know harm reduction works and we need to continue spreading the harm reduction message. It’s as much as talking about using drugs and talking about how to stay safe when you’re using them as telling people not to do them.” 

If you or someone you know is in need of help and support with drug related issues, you can find out more from The Loop’s website and from Drug Link.

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