Head of UK pill-testing service rejects Simon Bridges' claim they're responsible for rising drug deaths

The head of the UK's only pill-testing outfit says claims by a New Zealand politician it's responsible for an uptick in drug deaths there are "nonsense". 

Parliament here is currently debating the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill, which had its first reading on Tuesday night. It would make drug-testing facilities at music festivals legal - the current legislation, rushed into law late last year, expires in December. 

National MPs are opposed to it, saying it encourages festival-goers to take drugs

"By pill testing we provide a false confidence and encourage a view that the pill taking is safe and that use goes up," Simon Bridges said during Tuesday's debate. "Because that use goes up with that false confidence around the safety of the pills, fatalities will increase."

The debate was focused on MDMA, also known as ecstasy. New Zealand pill-checking group Know Your Stuff said a quarter of 'MDMA' pills it tested over summer "turned out to be cathinones", particularly eutylone, which the Government's High Alert drug warning service says is "particularly risky" and can cause "intense, unpleasant and potential dangerous experiences". At one festival, half of all ecstasy pills turned out to be eutylone. 

Bridges, quoting figures which show the number of deaths in the UK linked to ecstasy have risen in recent years, linked it to the rise of pill-testing at festivals. 

"Its use went up, and inextricably fatalities went up in the United Kingdom... If this is an evidence-based, harm-reduction issue, which I suggest most of those around me say it is, well, actually, we shouldn't do this. Use goes up, fatalities go up."

The UK's drug-testing facilities are run by The Loop, a non-governmental organisation run "almost entirely by volunteers", according to director Fiona Measham, who's chair in criminology at the University of Liverpool. 

The Loop started testing in 2016 at just two festivals. By 2019, before COVID-19 saw the 2020 and 2021 festival seasons cancelled, it had spread to 12 festivals. 

"At our peak we are proud to say that we delivered consultations to 1000 service users per day, which makes us one of the busiest and fastest drug-checking NGOs in the world," Dr Measham told Newshub. 

"However this is a drop in the ocean. So the idea that The Loop single-handedly has such a profound influence on the statistics on death or use for a whole country of over 60 million people is clearly nonsense."

In 2015, the year before The Loop started operating, there were 57 deaths in the UK linked to ecstasy use. That rose to 63 the following year, dropped to 56 in 2017, and peaked at 92 in 2018. There was a drop in 2019 to 78. 

But the slight upward trend isn't isolated to ecstasy. 2020 was the eighth-consecutive year drug deaths in England and Wales had gone up, even without festivals. Most of the rise was down to cocaine use. In a piece for The Conversation, academics said the evidence showed inequities caused by 'failed government policies and serious disinvestment in public services caused by a decade of austerity" were behind the worsening statistics. 

There have also been reports the purity of MDMA pills on the market has increased dramatically, potentially leading to overdoses. 

Fiona Measham.
Fiona Measham. Photo credit: The Loop

Dr Measham said there's no evidence pill-testing services are encouraging Brits to take ecstasy, with usage rates static despite the rising number of deaths. 

"To give you some context, regarding deaths, about 10 million people go to about 900 festivals in the UK each year so we reach a tiny percentage of festival-goers, at [about] 1 percent of the festivals. Furthermore, three-quarters of UK drug related deaths are for opiates, and over 99 percent are by non festival-goers. 

"UK drug-related deaths have increased to record levels for many reasons including decreased funding for drug treatment services, and changes in service delivery policy, but unrelated to what is happening in festivals and even more unrelated to what is happening in 1 percent of festivals where The Loop tests... 

"If you look at the publicly available statistics, whilst UK deaths have increased, use hasn't. There is no link between rates of drug prevalence, drug deaths and drug checking in the UK in five years and in Europe in over 30 years."

Bridges declined to comment when presented with Dr Measham's findings. 

There were three deaths at festivals over New Zealand's recent summers. None have been linked to drugs. One was a heart attack, and the other two remain under investigation by the coroner.

During the debate on Tuesday, National MP Simeon Brown claimed an Australian study said "there have been 'no studies [which] have fully tested in a controlled way, whether pill testing reduces harm'." That study, published in 2018, did indeed say that, but its authors recommended allowing testing anyway, citing "pragmatism and drawing from national and international research evidence". 

A new study, co-authored by Dr Measham and published just this month, found drug-testing services not only stop people from ingesting dangerous substances, but encourages users to be more careful where they get their drugs in future. 

Researchers followed up with 3500 drug users who used The Loop's services in 2017. Half of all people whose drugs turned out to be something else handed it over for destruction, or said they'd get rid of it and a quarter said they'd been put off buying drugs from strangers. 

Of those whose drugs were pure, more than a third took less than they had originally intended because it turned out to be stronger than expected. 

"Drug checking can reduce the risk of poisoning and overdose, including by discouraging people from taking adulterants and taking smaller doses, even three months after using the Loop's drug checking service," said Dr Measham.