Working life: Drugs Checker
Dr Judith Yates explains how she minimises the harm of drugs to festival-goers
Profile Dr Judith Yates
Roles More than 30 years as a GP and partner in Birmingham
Hours worked per week Now retired, but an active volunteer
Today I’m going to be a ‘harm reduction’ worker. I set off to the MADE Festival in Birmingham to volunteer with The Loop, a non-profit organisation set up in 2016 to test drugs at music festivals across England. My role is to feed back forensic test results of drug samples submitted by festival-goers and advise them about what they have bought and what it might do.
The settings of a GP practice and a festival full of young people enjoying themselves seem worlds apart, but I often find myself drawing on my experiences as a GP in this volunteer role. In both, I assist a variety of people with a variety of concerns, and prioritise listening, honesty and respect – as well as providing medical knowledge, of course.
The day begins with a briefing, where we are reminded that the only safe option is to avoid drugs, and we gently advise festival-goers as such. We also tell them that we cannot return their samples. However, we don’t judge at The Loop, so we are careful to emphasise that if anyone does wish to take any of the substances they brought to us, they should ‘start low, go slow, and sip a pint of water during each hour’.
The volunteers are based between a chemists’ caravan and counselling tent. There is also a high-level presence from West Midlands Police, and police and crime commissioner David Jamieson, who offer visible support for the public health approach to Birmingham’s drugs scene.
In the chemists’ caravan, the team is concentrating on spectrometers as they read the drug content of the samples, where the precision of every decimal point is integral to the analysis.
I go back and forth between counselling and checking results from chemistry. The colour and glitter of the event are certainly dazzling. Festival-goers hand over their samples, which are placed in a plastic bag and identified by a raffle ticket. They hand over a pill or a small amount of powder needed to cover 0.5cm of a spill.
Amid the crowds, someone who stands out to me is ‘Luke’, a softly spoken 19-year-old. I explain that his substance, bought as ketamine, is actually chloroquine. It’s the first time I’ve seen an antimalarial passed off as a psychoactive, but work at The Loop proves there’s some truth to the cliché of ‘expect the unexpected’.
Strikingly, more than half of today’s samples are MDMA (ecstasy), which the Government revealed was taken by approximately half a million young people in the UK last year. Some contained three times the usual dosage, with the strongest example being a yellow tablet of 240mg of the drug. We may have stopped the buyer from accidentally overdosing.
We have tested 59 samples and advised 70 festival-goers, but the day isn’t over yet. People are still arriving with samples, wanting advice. Their average age is 21, and most haven’t spoken to a health worker about drugs before, so it’s heartening that a fifth are persuaded to take smaller doses in the future, and one in seven voluntarily disposes of the rest of their supply. There’s still progress to be made, but this is a step forward.
At the end of the first day, my attitude is in marked contrast to the start. I started out believing I had an understanding of recreational drug use, but the reality is very different. I now realise many drugs contain a variety of high-concentration ingredients, for instance.
Criminal gangs certainly don’t care about accurately describing the drugs they sell. I’m encouraged by the impact of The Loop and the police in making festivals safer. There have been no deaths at any events attended by The Loop, and long may this continue. I look forward to rejoining the team this summer.