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NTIA seeks judicial review on government’s “reckless” festival drug testing policy

By | Published on Monday 3 July 2023

Night Time Industries Association

The Night Time Industries Association and the founder of Manchester festival Parklife, Sacha Lord, have confirmed that they are seeking a judicial review of the UK government’s current position regarding onsite drug testing at music festivals.

Ahead of that, they have called on the government’s Home Office to voluntarily reverse that position so that drug testing can go ahead as planned at various festivals this summer.

A number of festivals now test drugs on-site to assess whether there are any substances in circulation that could pose a heightened risk to those consuming them. In some cases, the drugs are provided for testing by festival-goers, sometimes anonymously, or – more commonly at UK festivals – the experts analyse drugs that have been confiscated by police and security.

Either way, any information about substances that could pose a heightened risk is pushed out through social media, and provided to police and on-site medical personnel. That work can prevent harm and save lives by ensuring any heightened risk is known.

Manchester’s Parklife festival has previously undertaken work of that kind in partnership with drug testing charity The Loop and in liaison with the city’s police force. However, this year it was told that a licence was also required directly from the Home Office. Given that getting that licence can take up to three months, the event wasn’t able to carry out any drug testing this year.

In a statement earlier today, the NTIA and Lord – who is also night-time economy advisor for Manchester – stated: “Since 2014 there have been on-site drug testing labs at music festivals in the UK. The service has been provided with the agreement of local police and councils by way of a memorandum of understanding with festival organisers and the drug testing companies”.

“Operating on a cross-agency basis means information about dangerous drugs circulating at an event can be passed on to festival-goers, organisers, police and medical services while any harmful substances can be destroyed or passed to the police”, they went on.

“On-site testing also enables medical teams to treat anyone who has an adverse reaction quickly and effectively because they will already be aware of the drugs chemical composition”.

Lord himself added: “This on-site testing has saved lives and the absence of it puts lives at risk”.

The Home Office insists that it hasn’t changed its position and that licences have always been required to undertake drug testing at festivals. And therefore it didn’t abruptly change the rules days before this year’s Parklife, preventing drug testing from taking place at that event and other 2023 festivals.

However, in their letter, the NTIA and Lord point to previous discussions about drug testing at festivals in Parliament, some involving relevant ministers. Those included discussions about local police forces taking the lead in this work. And yet during those discussions, the requirement for licences from the Home Office wasn’t stated.

Beyond festivals needing up to three months to even get a licence, that requirement poses other challenges. First, the licence costs thousands of pounds, which is an issue for festivals operating on tight profit margins. Plus it requires that a permanent location for the testing be identified, which clearly doesn’t work for testing that will take place on-site at festivals.

Setting out its demands, the letter states: “We request that the Home Office considers resolving this matter by consent, reaching an agreement that on-site drug testing by organisations continues by agreeing a memorandum of understanding”.

“Should the Home Office wish to pursue its current stated position that on-site drugs testing requires a Controlled Drugs Licence and a fixed premises”, it adds, “then it should undertake a consultation exercise so as to reach a rational decision taking into account relevant considerations and allowing these organisations sufficient time to comply with the government’s decision”.

It then concludes that “in the absence of any/any satisfactory response we will have no option but to issue proceedings for the judicial review of the Home Office’s decision”. Which would basically mean the NTIA and Lord asking the courts to intervene.

Says NTIA CEO Michael Kill: “The Home Office must reverse their decision for 2023 and consider the true impact of withdrawing a practice which has been operating safely in some regions for over ten years, with the full knowledge and support of the police and local authorities”.

“The festivals and events sector work extremely hard to ensure festival-goers are kept safe”, he goes on, “and rely heavily on back-of-house drug testing as a vital part of the overarching harm reduction strategy. Without this facility we are putting people’s lives at risk, leaving a considerable void in drug intelligence for police and medical support services on the ground for the rest of the 2023 season”.

Lord adds: “The Home Office must put an end to this reckless disregard for the safety of festival-goers and reinstate the existing memorandum of understanding with immediate effect. The industry works tirelessly to ensure we do everything possible to safeguard the public. If the Home Office continues not to support us in this vital work we will be left with no other choice but to call for a full investigation and consultation”.

The NTIA and Lord already have some support in Parliament. Last month Sam Tarry MP organised a letter – signed by a number of MPs and musicians – which told the Home Office: “The decision to prevent this testing from going ahead is short-sighted and dangerous. We urge you to reconsider this decision and allow this vital testing to continue”.