The Scientists who are Testing your Drugs at Manchester's Festivals & Clubs

We spoke to Dr Katayune Presland, volunteer Senior Chemist at the nationwide drug testing service - The Loop...

By Ben Brown | August 30th '22

In 2021 Manchester became home to the world’s strongest EVER ecstasy pill – the ‘Blue Punisher‘ which was found to contain five times the usual dose of MDMA. Well done everyone. Something else we can add to our list of accolades.

When the pill was tested, after being confiscated by some bouncers at a club, social media went into overdrive to try to educate and inform people of the risks of the pill – and if you’ve been to festivals or big parties in Manchester over the last few years, it’s likely that you’ll have seen these sorts of campaigns before.

For the ‘Blue Punisher’ it was Manchester Metropolitan Univesity’s MANDRAKE drug analysis lab that got their hands on them and tested them, but pretty much every other time you hear about dodgy pills and drugs, it’ll come from the hardworking people over at The Loop.

All the way back in 2013, Manchester’s Warehouse Project became the first UK event with an on-site drug testing service, the culmination of Professor Fiona Measham’s three-year commitment to harm reduction and drug education across the country’s music and events industries.

At this first event, Professor Measham’s ‘The Loop’ partnered with the Home Office Forensic Early Warning System (FEWS) chemists, but after this successful shadowing, embarked on conducting their very own onsite drug testing at PARKLIFE and Kendal Calling in 2014 – a service which has continued and grown in every subsequent year since then.

These initial tests were performed in labs away from the public, using substances obtained from onsite medical and welfare services, or surrendered to amnesty bins, seized or confiscated. Results were then communicated to emergency services, support staff and then to the wider public via social media and early warning systems.

The Loop team at Lost Village

However, as time has progressed, The Loop has introduced public testing services, where people can have their substances checked confidentially, providing education on what exactly they’re buying and using, and helping to alert authorities and event staff of any potentially harmful drugs that are in circulation.

It’s here in the story when Dr Katayune Presland comes in; Royal Society of Chemistry Education Coordinator for the North West, a woman with a Masters in Chemistry and a PhD in Nanochemistry, and also a volunteer Senior Chemist at The Loop. She’s attended festivals every year for the past few years helping to test and uncover often highly dangerous drugs.

As well as attending some of the UK’s greatest festivals over the years, Kat can also be safe in the knowledge that she has probably saved many lives, or at the very least prevented serious harm for thousands. A fact that can be traversed across the many volunteer chemists, psychologists and health workers that make up The Loop’s support team.

Kat herself got acquainted with The Loop through her position working with some students; “the whole reason I started with The Loop is that I took the testing machine into schools to do workshops for kids, but then got in touch with the charity because I wanted real-life experience of using in the field – literally in a field!”

“So now when I’m using the machinery and equipment with the students I can show them pictures, tell them stories about my real-life experiences of using it – and where chemistry comes in useful in the real world.”

After this first test drive of the machinery at PARKLIFE, Kat simply continued, attending more and more festivals and club events over the years.

Kat went on to appear in a three-part documentary ‘Doing Drugs for Fun?‘, which took four British casual users of cocaine behind the scenes of its manufacture and supply – and managed, according to The Guardian’ to be “compelling, honest and unpreachy, and treats its subject with robust respect.

And this is exactly how it is with The Loop, which is essentially “nothing more than basic harm reduction,” a way to limit the damage that drugs can do to people, by using education as a tool.

“You’ve got health workers, you’ve got the researchers, you’ve also got data, and the chemists, and there’s a number of senior people in those teams who’ve done a number of years of experience.”

Setting up their mobile laboratory at a festival or club, the team at The Loop will set about almost instantly testing drugs that have been confiscated or left in amnesty bins in the hope of uncovering anything that might be dangerous out there.

You’ll only get told this information though after a chat with a health professional; “so, they’re not just told what it is. And off they go. It’s a case of this is what it is, this is how it interacts with the body, and what happens if you mix it with these things.”

“It’s just informing people and giving them advice about, well, not how to take them safely because there’s no way to take drugs safely, but giving them all the information that they need to then do what they were going to do anyway.”

“It’s not meant to be a way for police to catch people – as much as nobody wants drugs to be at a festival, it’s impossible for there NOT to be drugs at a festival. And with instances of deaths at festivals – everybody, of course, just wants to avoid that.”

With illegal and unregulated substances, it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that most of what people think they’re buying when they buy drugs, are usually something else altogether, or either much stronger or much weaker than what they’re expecting. It’s essentially a lottery every time you take something.

Each year too, the strength of certain drugs fluctuates with changes in supply and demand, with recent worldwide shortages in MDMA resulting in producers using simple caffeine, and something called 4-Chloromethcathinone or 4-CMC instead – or a mixture of all three.

This then creates a problem because 4-CMC gives off a similar high to MDMA but it’s much shorter lived, meaning people will then take more as it wears off. “When people think it’s not very good MDMA that they’re taking, they simply take more, but 4-CMC does have a lethal dose, which can then cause some serious issues.”

It’s nigh on impossible to stop drugs being taken at festivals and club events, and The Loop know this. So it’s all about education and information – hopefully reducing the harmful effects that come about from the substances. More recently, the charity has been looking to extend these services out to the grreater British public, because, as Kat says; “the problem with festival testing is that it’s limited to those who can afford to buy a ticket.”

And so The Loop has recently launched a dedicated Drop-In Centre in Bristol where anyone can bring in their drugs to get their results back and talk to a healthcare worker. It’s open to everyone, people don’t get in trouble and there certainly “isn’t be any police outside waiting to catch you.”

So alongside their tireless work at festivals and events across Manchester and the UK, this new venture in Bristol will provide vital drug checking services for anyone, on-going training, harm reduction information and extensive research and evaluation on the drugs that are ending up on Britain’s streets.

Will we see something similar coming to Manchester? If Bristol is a success, then this is certainly something that should be extended across the major cities – helping give people to access to accurate, timely, and relevant information to make more informed decisions about drugs.

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